Google strikes back in search antitrust lawsuit

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The company says its agreements with Apple and Mozilla represent competition, not a monopoly.

Courts have unsealed Google’s motion to dismiss an antitrust lawsuit over its search engine — one that could fracture a core Google service in order to increase online competition. In a motion for summary judgment filed on December 12th, the company argues that the complaint misrepresents its agreements with browser developers and Android phone makers, unfairly punishing its success. “Requiring Google not to compete vigorously — or requiring browser developers to alter their product designs and provide a worse experience for their customers,” it says, “would turn competition law on its head.”

The US Department of Justice and a coalition of state attorneys general sued Google in 2020, part of a multi-pronged approach to limit the web giant’s power. (The state and federal suits were filed separately but largely consolidated.) The latest complaint alleges that Google used its incumbent power and its Android operating system to lock up the search market, denying competitors “vital distribution, scale, and product recognition.” It seeks structural changes that would limit Google’s power over new entrants.

Google’s moderately redacted brief argues that its search deals — including agreements with Mozilla and Apple to feature Google search in their browsers — don’t prevent users from trying other engines and are the result of Google simply outperforming its competitors. “No evidence suggests that Google coerced Apple, Mozilla, or any other browser developer into adopting a design that includes a single default search engine,” the filing asserts. Similarly, it argues that its contracts with Android phone makers don’t constitute exclusive deals. And in a separate Colorado suit, it denies that it unlawfully stacked its search results against specialized “vertical” search engines like Yelp, which has persistently argued that Google favors its own services.

Google search has faced persistent antitrust scrutiny in Europe, which has taken a more active approach to anti-monopoly efforts. Last year, the European Union General Court upheld a €4.125 billion (roughly $4.4 billion) fine for placing “unlawful restrictions” on Android phone manufacturers to consolidate its search dominance. It was previously censured for demoting a rival shopping search engine in its own service, a move Google argued it made to reduce low-quality results.

In the US, a larger push to fundamentally reform antitrust policy — and likely create more legal risks for large tech companies — fizzled out at the end of 2022.

But Google and government agencies are still dueling over whether the company violated existing law. The company is fighting a separate lawsuit alleging that it used anti-competitive practices to dominate the ad-tech field, although a judge pared back the suit in September, throwing out claims that Google and Facebook colluded to fix the market. A more recent suit alleges that Google abused its power in Android’s Google Play Store — echoing an ongoing high-profile case brought by Fortnite developer Epic Games.

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