The DOJ just slammed Google with a landmark antitrust case, kicking off the largest legal challenge in the tech giant's history

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The DOJ just slammed Google with a landmark antitrust case, kicking off the largest legal challenge in the tech giant's history
Google's CEO Sundar Pichai.Justin Sullivan /Getty Images
  • The Department of Justice filed a heavily anticipated antitrust case against Google Tuesday morning, accusing the search giant of having an unfair advantage in search and online advertising.
  • The case alleges that Google disadvantaged competitors through a network of exclusionary business deals. It's the largest legal challenge that Google has faced in its history, and is likely to result in a court fight that could last years.
  • "Google is a monopoly under traditional antitrust principles and must be stopped," Associate Deputy Attorney General Ryan Shores said. "We are asking the court to break Google's grip on search."
  • Google is unlikely to back down from the legal fight, which could stretch out in court for years. If the government wins out over Google, the company could be forced to restructure or possibly separate parts of its business.

The United States Department of Justice filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google on Tuesday morning, kicking off the largest legal challenge the tech giant has ever faced.

The case argues that Google uses a network of illegal, exclusionary business deals which disadvantage smaller competitors, building an unfair advantage in search and online advertising. Eleven states joined the Justice Department in its lawsuit.

"Google is a monopoly under traditional antitrust principles and must be stopped," Associate Deputy Attorney General Ryan Shores said in a press conference Tuesday morning. "We are asking the court to break Google's grip on search."

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Google is unlikely to back down from the legal fight, which could stretch out in court for years. If the government wins, Google could be forced to restructure or possibly separate parts of its business. If Google wins, the case could set a precedent shielding several tech giants from legal scrutiny they're currently facing — but lawmakers could still aim to regulate or break up tech companies through new laws.

The antitrust suit will be led by the appointees of whoever wins the November 3 presidential election. The lawsuit does not ask for specific remedies, which would instead be decided at a later point by the courts. Prosecutors said they will ask courts to stop Google's alleged anticompetitive behavior and added that "additional relief" may be necessary to undue alleged harms caused.

"Nothing is off the table," Deputy Attorney General Jeff Rosen said at Tuesday's press conference.

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Google SVP of Global Affairs Kent Walker responded with a statement calling the lawsuit "deeply flawed," arguing that people intentionally choose to use Google's search engine rather than one of its competitors.

"This lawsuit would do nothing to help consumers. To the contrary, it would artificially prop up lower-quality search alternatives, raise phone prices, and make it harder for people to get the search services they want to use," Walker said.

The lawsuit focuses on how Google allegedly choked out competitors, building on precedent set in a 1998 antitrust suit against Microsoft

The lawsuit takes the rare step of invoking the Sherman Act, an antitrust law passed in 1890 granting the government power to break up monopolies. The last high-profile government case that invoked the Sherman Act was a 1998 antitrust lawsuit brought against Microsoft, which ultimately settled with the government and agreed to restructure its business.

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"The [Sherman Act] is not regularly invoked," Rosen said. "It's not an everyday occurrence, it's a very significant thing for the department to do."

Critics of antitrust action against tech giants have argued that the Sherman Act is a weak legal basis for such a lawsuit because it defines monopolies in terms of consumer harm, typically interpreted as an unfair increase in cost — but Google doesn't charge consumers for most of its popular products. The DOJ argues, however, that Google's alleged anticompetitive conduct has had other negative impacts on consumers, like reducing the quality of search services.

In online search, Google controls more than 88% of the market, according to the results of the DOJ's investigation. Its market share is even greater among smartphone users — 94% of web searches on mobile devices are made through Google. Meanwhile, Google's share of the search ads market is 70%, DOJ officials said.

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In addition to its dominance in search and online advertising, the DOJ lawsuit argues that Google unfairly pays smartphone manufacturers to place its apps front-and-center by pre-installing them on handsets, which it pays for using revenue from its advertising platform.

DOJ officials waved away concerns that the lawsuit is politically motivated

The heavily anticipated lawsuit comes as President Donald Trump has pushed his administration to crack down on big tech companies, which he perceives as biased against him. Attorney General William Barr reportedly pushed prosecutors to file the lawsuit before the Nov. 3 presidential election despite concerns from some prosecutors that the case required a longer investigation, according to The New York Times.

However, Rosen emphasized that the antitrust lawsuit against Google is unrelated to Trump's criticisms of Section 230, a law that shields tech companies from lawsuits over users' posts on their sites.

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Google is also the subject of a probe by 50 state attorneys general, which was officially announced in September last year. Eleven of those states — Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, South Carolina, and Texas — joined the Justice Department's lawsuit filed Tuesday, all of which have Republican attorneys general. But Rosen denied that states' decision to join the lawsuit had partisan motivations, implying that Democrat attorneys general also supported the suit.

"People might want to do their own thing on timing and approach. That's fine, I don't take that as non-support," Rosen said.

Meanwhile, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers are calling for tech giants to be more heavily regulated. Last month, House Democrats published a report following a year-long investigation that concluded Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon have monopoly power on part with "oil barons and railroad tycoons" of past centuries.

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Read the DOJ's full antitrust complaint below:

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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