Another Day, Another Antitrust Lawsuit For Google:

from the let-me-rest dept

So, just as I was finishing off the post on Wednesday’s antitrust lawsuit against Google brought by 10 states, news broke that the other big state antitrust case against Google had been filed as well. This one involves 38 states, led by Colorado and Nebraska. I’m assuming that this is the main state antitrust lawsuit that states had been talking about, as compared to the first lawsuit with fewer states. Whereas the first state lawsuit focused on display ads, this one focuses on the market for search.

You can read the full filing, which I’d recommend. I think this one is the most interesting of the three antitrust lawsuits that have been filed against the company. Part of the argument more or less rehashes the DOJ’s weak case that because Google pays Apple an astounding amount of money to be the default search on iPhones, that’s proof of anti-competitive behavior. That’s an argument that still just doesn’t make any sense to me at all. If the accusation is that Google is abusing its position, you’d think it wouldn’t be paying $8 to $12 billion dollars to Apple. If anything, that suggests that it’s Apple who has the market power, rather than Google.

Where the case gets potentially more interesting is in the part where it argues that Google is abusing its search advertising tool, called SA360, in anticompetitive ways:

Advertising tools that optimize companies? search advertising purchases have become increasingly important to advertisers. Google?s own search advertising tool, SA360, serves more advertisers than any other tool. Such tools can promote competition in search advertising by, for example, allowing easy comparison of competing offers.

Google has consistently assured advertisers that it would operate SA360 in a neutral manner. But Google harms competition by refusing interoperability to comparable advertising features offered by Microsoft?s Bing general search engine. Instead, Google continuously favors advertising on its own platform and steers advertiser spending towards itself by artificially denying advertisers the opportunity to evaluate the options that would serve those advertisers best. No technical or operational barrier prevents SA360 from providing advertisers with direct and interoperable access to relevant data and important functionality from multiple general search engines.

But the details here matter. If Google is being misleading about SA360, then that seems like it should be an FTC false advertising claim, rather than strictly an antitrust claim. But also, it’s odd that the lawsuit seems to insist that refusing to interoperate with the company’s main competitor in search, Bing, is somehow proof of anticompetitive behavior. I’d love it if there were a lot more interoperability, but I’m not sure this alone trips a real antitrust concern.

The lawsuit also goes down a weird well in claiming that suppressing “specialized search” sites is anti-competitive. There have been a few such sites that have complained about such things, but generally speaking those are spam sites. The reason that Google demoted them was that they made the Google search process worse, by sending you not to the results users were looking for, but to one of those specialty search engines that had good enough SEO to rank high in Google. That was very much a bad customer experience. But, the complaint argues that Google treats companies differently in way that is potentially problematic:

To artificially foreclose this opportunity and maintain its search-related monopolies, Google takes advantage of the fact that it has already banished rival general search engines to the fringes of the search-related markets, which has fostered an artificial dependence by specialized vertical providers on Google as a way to acquire customers. Doubling down on its exclusionary conduct, Google takes advantage of certain specialized vertical providers? dependence on Google, treating them differently than participants in other commercial segments and further limiting their ability to acquire customers.

Google has already responded to the lawsuit by saying that it can defend all these decisions as making the product better for its users. And it’s going to need to really prove that, because there do remain some decisions that are, at the very least, headscratching (like Google using only its own local listings for the carousel, rather than using the wider ecosystem of sites).

Of the three antitrust lawsuits filed against Google so far, this one strikes me as the most serious (with the caveat that some of the redacted parts of the other lawsuit filed this week sound pretty explosive, but the key details are all redacted, so it’s tough to tell). The DOJ’s lawsuit remains (by far) the weakest of the bunch.

I am assuming that these lawsuits will eventually be combined in some form. NY’s Attorney General had original said that the intention of this latest lawsuit was to be combined with the DOJ’s. It seems possible that all three lawsuits will be merged into one massive lawsuit. This latest one still has some problems, but the lawyering is much better than the DOJ’s and the end result of this case will likely be the most interesting to watch concerning the future of search and search advertising.

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Companies: google

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Comments on “Another Day, Another Antitrust Lawsuit For Google:”

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20 Comments
luther lowe (profile) says:

"… the results are compelling. Using Google’s own algorithm to rank all possible reviews seems like a pretty smart way of doing things, and likely to give better results than just using Google’s (much more limited) database of reviews… Frankly, I’m kind of surprised this isn’t the way Google operates, and it’s a bit disappointing that the company doesn’t just jump on this as a solution voluntarily, rather than dragging it out and having the bureaucrats force it upon them."

  • Mike Masnick, 10/2/2014

"Yelp makes a strong argument for why Google’s approach to the One Box is bad and not the best overall results for its users. I’m… disappointed that Google hasn’t made this entire issue go away by actually revamping how the One Box works."

  • Mike Masnick, 5/25/2018

"And [Google’s] going to need to really prove that [its ‘making the product better for its users’], because there do remain some decisions that are, at the very least, headscratching (like Google using only its own local listings for the carousel, rather than using the wider ecosystem of sites)."

  • Mike Masnick, 12/18/2020

Appreciate the consistency here, Mike. Google is degrading the quality of the consumer experience by self-preferencing its local review content. I hope this suit leads to some reflection and product changes before the company is ultimately prosecuted.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

As far as Google paying Apple, the logic comes out of a specific category of anti-trust. A company who uses the money they earn to lock out competitors and secure more of the market can be seen as manipulating the market.

Apple and Google compete in mobile OS and the browser space, true. But they don’t compete in search. Apple would have a natural incentive to use a competing search engine as the default in iOS to avoid bolstering their mobile OS/browser competitor.

Google however subverts this natural incentive by spending the money smaller competitors don’t have. That they had to pay Apple is evidence that Apple would not have made organically made this choice. This then serves to roadblock smaller search engines by dint of google’s money influencing the market. So far so good.

Where I agree with you is I have yet to see that the lawsuit then alleges that this move harmed consumers. It did not prevent consumers from making a choice. A customer that does not want to use google can use google to figure out how not to use google by default, like how I have to use edge to download Vivaldi or Chrome.

The issue is that consumers don’t care enough. And legislators seem to think that by forcing them to make a choice during ever-longer setup screens and less space available on the phone as a result of a series of pre-installed options will somehow fix this apathy.

ECA (profile) says:

So?

Who are the other advertisers in the internet market?

I think I know, but lets look at the past.
When we went to different sites and Different Advertisers WANTED to know who we were and all this other DATA.
Then the Hired out to ‘Persons’ to create the advert with a tracker inside the advert. EVERY Advert had its OWN tracker.
How many could your system handle before things GOT REAL BAD. My record is over 255, before things get to Show your computer is SLOWING DOWN.
But lets look at the popups, the pop-unders, The advert that comes up and there is NO WAY to close it.
This WASNT the only thing they were installing. And not the only place this CRAP was installing.
WHO hard the Easiest Bot on your computer, that DIDNT bother you, much. Google.

Even NOW, there are advertisers out there, Even SITES that install CRAP on your machine(I dont know if the sites know about it, cause THEY DIDNT CREATE the site, they had it made by another)

Even Now Iv seen sites So overwhelmed with scripts and crap Just to look at their page, its stupid.
Anyone want to use a program/App from Playgoogle? Install a game and it wants to call home(love solitaire) it wants to give you another popup, every round, every few minutes, and ALL THE TIME. It wants on the net to do it,and WONT let the prog work unless you let it call home.

What are the odds, this is allot of the old school advertisers and people using Them, to advert, and REALLY messing things up?
They want on the net also, but aint learned how and what to do.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

davedave (profile) says:

So is the point here that even Mad Mike Masnick* can’t keep clear which side if the 230 debate he’s on? This case is due for summary dismissal, ffs.

The plaintiffs lack standing, but in any case it’s expressly permitted behaviour thanks to 230. As it bloody well shoukd be.

[*I assume Mike knows who Mad Mike Magee is, and that the name is a compliment for any tech journalist. Taliskers all round!]

davedave (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

No liability attaches to anyone.

"(2)Civil liability

"No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—

"(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or"

Objectionable because the advertiser hasn’t paid enough to hit top spot? Yup.

"Reform 230" has become some nonsense used by people who want Facebook and Google to base themselves outside the US – I think that’s the point, it’s the only effect their proposals will have – but that doesn’t mean the legislation was perfectly drafted.

davedave (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Not if the antitrust suit is liable to be summarily dismissed thanks to provisions in 230. Which won’t even be considered in this case, afaics, since the plaintiffs lack standing.

It’s political posturing, not a real case. I may be wrong on the technicalities of the law, because I’m not legally qualified here let alone in the US, but I’m pretty sure about the ‘not a real case’ part. There is zero prospect of success. It will be dismissed on the first application – and if it isn’t I’ll print this post, roll it into a tight scroll, shove it up my arse, and post the video on Pornhub for those of you who like my hairy bumcheeks.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Not if the antitrust suit is liable to be summarily dismissed thanks to provisions in 230. Which won’t even be considered in this case, afaics, since the plaintiffs lack standing.

What? That’s not how it works, §230 isn’t an escape hatch for (alleged) federal crimes which is explicitly stated in §230(e)(1).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

The guy all but admitted that the plaintiffs "lack standing". This is a colossal waste of everyone’s time, but they’ll push through it because "something something fuck Google"… even if it literally doesn’t affect them in any meaningful way.

The failure to use Jim Hood hangs around the Google conspiracists like a foul stench. They’re now at the point where they’re throwing anything and everything at the wall to see if it sticks… even though there’s already plenty of shit Google can be nailed to the wall for.

ECA (profile) says:

Anyone get he hint.

That this is a battle we had once before..
Old money vs NEW money?
Where the middle class was infringing on the Upper classes?

In all this its coming to a point of WHO controls the information.
And they keep saying GOOGLE this/that. But its NOT that far up the line.
I dont care what they SAY, its whats going to happen.
1 Person gets up set, and takes a SMALL Forum to court. Its not that they CANT/SHOULNT or even 1st amendment. ITS that they CAN, just to COST the site money. to take all the little guys OUT.
Because its NOT the people they can take to court. ITS the Site owner, and then 1 step above. the SERVER company that supplied the access.
JUST scare them, and they will drop everyone.

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