Google antitrust suit is coming, but not next week

The Justice Department and state attorneys general are closer to filing an antitrust suit against Google over its online search dominance after two days of talks, but disagreements over the exact scope of the complaint mean they are more than a week away from doing so, two people involved in the case told POLITICO Friday.

The Justice Department met with state attorneys general Thursday to outline a proposed antitrust suit against the company related to its search business in the hopes of filing a complaint soon and discussions over the breadth, timing and location of the suit continued into Friday afternoon.

At Thursday’s meeting, attended in person by Attorney General William Barr and several Republican attorneys general, at least one disagreement involved how broad to make the search complaint, a person familiar with the discussions said. The investigations have looked into several issues related to the company, including contracts with Apple and smartphone manufacturers to ensure Google is the default search engine and how the tech giant prefers its own products in search results.

Several individuals pushed for a broad search complaint, the person said. Barr, who has taken the lead on the probe, appeared receptive to feedback, added the person. That individual and others spoke anonymously to discuss an ongoing investigation.

DOJ also has been investigating Google’s power in the advertising technology market, but has no immediate plans to file a case. That area is the top concern of many of the state AGs, and during the meetings the Justice Department and the states reached some agreements that could let them move forward with a case on advertising in the coming weeks, a third person said. Those discussions are ongoing.

As of Friday, a complaint on search isn’t likely until the week of Oct. 5, while a case on advertising technology isn’t expected for several weeks.

Both sides would prefer to move forward jointly, giving the case bipartisan support and greater resources for what will likely be yearslong court battles.

The Justice Department has been investigating Google for the past 16 months, looking into allegations the company unfairly dominates markets in both online search and advertising technology. The complaints related to Google’s conduct in the search market are well-known, having been investigated by the Federal Trade Commission in the early 2010s and forming the basis for two cases brought by the European Commission against the company.

But Google’s dominance in advertising technology — highly complicated mechanisms by which digital display ads are bought and sold online — has been under the microscope for much less time, though regulators in the U.K. and Australia have both examined the market.

U.S. state attorneys general announced an investigation into Google in September 2019 that would focus on ad tech. Only later did the state probe broaden to encompass concerns related to search and Google’s Android smartphone operating system.

The disparate timing has meant the Justice Department is furthest along on search, the area the states have had less time to investigate. Meanwhile, the states are finished with their ad tech investigation and nearly ready to sue but DOJ prosecutors are still investigating.

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