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Google Hit With Another Lawsuit Challenging Its Dominance

Google's search page is displayed on a laptop in an arranged photograph taken in New York on July 24. The tech giant was hit by a lawsuit from 38 attorneys general on Thursday, the third major legal challenge against Google in two months.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Google's search page is displayed on a laptop in an arranged photograph taken in New York on July 24. The tech giant was hit by a lawsuit from 38 attorneys general on Thursday, the third major legal challenge against Google in two months.

Updated at 6:32 p.m. ET

When you search on Google, do you get the best results? Or the results that are best for Google?

That question is at the heart of the latest lawsuit to challenge the tech giant's dominance over Internet search and advertising.

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of 38 attorneys general hit Google with the company's third antitrust complaint in less than two months, zeroing in on its role as "the gateway to the Internet."

"Google sits at the crossroads of so many areas of our digital economy and has used its dominance to illegally squash competitors, monitor nearly every aspect of our digital lives, and profit to the tune of billions," New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement.

The new lawsuit adds to an emerging portrait by state and federal officials of a company that has capitalized on deep troves of data about what people do online to gain unrivaled positions in search and advertising.

"It's not, 'People use Google.' Google uses people," said Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson.

Challenging the heart of Google's business: Search results

The lawsuit takes broad aim at Google's biggest and most lucrative businesses: its search engine, which is used for nearly 90% of Internet queries in the U.S., and its search advertising juggernaut, which brought in almost $100 billion in revenue last year.

The AGs accuse Google of giving its own products priority in search results over more specialized rivals, such as Yelp, which focuses on local businesses, and Tripadvisor, for travel listings. And they allege Google gives itself an unfair advantage over rival search engines, such as Microsoft's Bing, in the ads that appear in search results.

The states' complaint echoes one filed by the U.S. Justice Department in October. Both object to deals that, they allege, Google struck to ensconce itself in users' lives. Notably, both suits point to a pact that made Google's search engine the default on Apple devices.

The AGs go further, however, warning that Google is trying to lock in similar deals to dominate search on newer technologies such as smart speakers, voice assistants and connected cars. The states are asking for their complaint to be consolidated with the Justice Department's suit and litigated together.

Google says its search results are designed to give people the most useful information.

"This lawsuit seeks to redesign Search in ways that would deprive Americans of helpful information and hurt businesses' ability to connect directly with customers," Adam Cohen, Google's director of economy policy, wrote in ablog post responding to Thursday's lawsuit.

"We look forward to making that case in court, while remaining focused on delivering a high-quality search experience for our users," he added.

Google has previously said it faces plenty of competition and that people use its products and services because they want to, not because of a lack of alternatives.

Yelp, which has long complained about Google's behavior, said it applauded the AGs' move.

"We hope today's action is the beginning of a return to a more vibrant and open internet," said Luther Lowe, Yelp's head of public policy, in astatement.

From "a couple of geeks in a garage" to Big Tech

The legal challenges follow state and federal investigations of Google that stretch back more than a year, amid widening scrutiny of the tech industry. Separately, on Wednesday, 10 Republican state attorneys general filed a complaint taking aim at Google's might in digital advertising technology.

With Silicon Valley giants now holding so much sway over many aspects of daily life, from communications and entertainment to shopping, education and work, government officials have shown a new willingness to challenge that power. Their more aggressive approach follows years in which they allowed companies like Google to grow largely unchecked.

Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission and 48 attorneys general called for Facebook to be broken up because of illegal behavior towards rivals. Officials are also probing Apple and Amazon, and fresh scrutiny of the American tech giants is underway in Europe, where regulators this week proposed new curbs on their activities.

The joint efforts by federal agencies and state prosecutors to take on Google and Facebook "speaks volumes as to the magnitude of what's going on here and the importance of what we're doing," Peterson, the Nebraska AG, said.

The new posture in Washington and state capitals towards Silicon Valley represents a significant shift from just a few years ago, said David Dinielli, a former special counsel at the Justice Department's antitrust division.

After a long period in which tech companies were "romanticized as simply a couple of computer geeks in a garage," regulators and politicians now recognize they "have much greater force in our political lives, our personal lives, our family lives, and frankly, the working of our democracy," Dinielli said.

The cascade of lawsuits is "a remarkable coalescence that we have been remiss in examining the ways in which these companies have gained a foothold in every aspect of our lives and are operating for profit," he added.

Google is a particularly ripe target because of its starring role in that most fundamental online activity: looking something up. After all, the word "Google" has become a verb meaning "to search the Internet," the Justice Department said in its lawsuit.

"This is different than going to the card catalogue at the local library," Dinielli said. "Google has decided what to put on that first screen for Google's interests, not for ours."

The latest spotlight on Big Tech inevitably evokes comparisons to the last time the federal government and states took on the dominant force in technology: Microsoft, in the 1990s.

Like in that case, the lawsuits against Google and Facebook are likely to go on for years, and will involve difficult questions about whether the companies should be broken apart.

While Microsoft avoided being split up, it's widely agreed that the legal battle did change the company's behavior — and gave rise to a new generation of tech stars.

"Some people argue that if we hadn't brought the case, there would not have been a Google," said Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who led the states involved in the Microsoft case. (Miller became the longest-serving state attorney general in U.S. history earlier this year.)

"Of course, there is some irony if we produced Google and now Google is the monolith that we have to sue," he laughed.

Editor's note: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon are among NPR's financial supporters.

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Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.