WASHINGTON—State attorneys general are expected to meet with top Justice Department officials on Thursday to discuss how—and how quickly—they should pursue an antitrust case against
Google that could reshape the online business environment.
Top Justice Department officials including Attorney General William Barr want to move swiftly in filing the case, The Wall Street Journal has reported. But wrangling with state officials amid a charged partisan political atmosphere could complicate the process somewhat, some people said.
Google declined to comment on the DOJ meeting with attorneys general. In a blog post on competition issues, it has emphasized that its products help people as well as other businesses. “Our products increase choice and expand competition,” it said. “They level the playing field for small businesses everywhere—enabling them to sell their products, find customers, reduce their costs and, in difficult times, get back on their feet.”
Google has been investigated by federal and state authorities over a range of potential antitrust issues, including whether it has abused its dominance in internet searches as well as online advertising.
The department has been moving toward bringing a lawsuit before the election, the Journal has reported. Dozens of government antitrust lawyers have been investigating whether the search giant has used its dominance to stifle competition.
One group of DOJ investigators is focused on Google’s search practices. Another team is examining Google’s online advertising business, where the company owns industry-leading tools at every link in the complex chain between online publishers and advertisers.
The department’s search investigation has been moving more rapidly and will likely be the key focus of a lawsuit that could come within days, according to people familiar with the matter. Allegations related to Google’s ad business, which also are a big focus of state investigators, could come later, the people said.
Around 50 attorneys general, including members of both parties, said they were joining in the states’ antitrust investigation of the company last year. That bipartisan coalition has been cooperating closely with the Justice Department.
Recently, however, partisan fractures have begun to surface among the states and between state officials and their federal counterparts. Some Democratic attorneys general have been prominent among those raising concerns with their colleagues about whether the Justice Department case is moving too fast or doesn’t include enough issues, according to several people familiar with the matter. Some have been urging their colleagues not to join in the case, these people say.
The presidential election could be adding political considerations to the mix, according to some people familiar with the matter.
Others say those divisions are being exaggerated. Jim Hood, the former Democratic attorney general of Mississippi, who has been a critic of Google, said in an interview this week that he believes the bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general that has emerged will generally hold together, despite the growing political pressures of election season.
“I’ve found that attorneys general set that [partisanship] aside,” Mr. Hood said. “In the end I think that’s how this will happen. I don’t see that partisan divide.”
Arizona’s attorney general, Mark Brnovich, a Republican, said: “The reality is this shouldn’t be an issue of right versus left, because it’s a fundamental issue of right versus wrong.”
Google has been under the antitrust microscope for a decade. The Federal Trade Commission, which shares antitrust authority with the Justice Department, spent more than a year investigating Google but decided in 2013 not to bring a case. Some FTC staffers in that case raised several concerns about Google’s conduct, but the commission said the evidence, on balance, didn’t warrant a case.
While the U.S. hasn’t taken action, antitrust enforcers in the European Union have brought three cases against Google, with fines totaling more than $9 billion.
The company also has been criticized by both parties on Capitol Hill, including during a July 29 hearing in which Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai and other top tech CEOs testified.
While lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have denounced Google for having too much power online, Republicans have a longer list of grievances, some of which go beyond concerns about competition and are focused instead on allegations the company is biased against conservatives. Democrats, including presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden, say platforms need to do more to curb the spread of false information.
Separately on Wednesday, the Justice Department submitted a proposal to Congress to curb longstanding legal protections for internet companies such as
and force them to shoulder more responsibility for managing content on their sites.
Write to John D. McKinnon at [email protected] and Brent Kendall at [email protected]
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