Thursday, October 22, 2020

Justice Department expected to brief state attorneys general this week on Google antitrust lawsuit

Sep 22. 2020
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By The Washington Post · Tony Romm · NATIONAL, BUSINESS, COURTSLAW 

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department is expected to brief state attorneys general this week about its imminent plans to file an antitrust lawsuit against Google, setting in motion a landmark legal clash between the U.S. government and the search-and-advertising behemoth.

The timeline puts federal competition watchdogs on track to file a case against Google potentially next week, capping off a wide-ranging inquiry into the tech giant and the extent to which its sprawling corporate footprint harms rivals and consumers. Two people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss a law enforcement proceeding, confirmed the Justice Department's early plans, but they cautioned that it could change and that a lawsuit may come later than anticipated.

The Justice Department and Google each declined to comment.

The Justice Department opened its investigation of Google last year, a probe that initially appeared focused on the company's advertising business but since has come to encompass its dominant footprint in online search. It marks the first major entanglement between the U.S. government and the tech giant since 2013, when federal officials last scrutinized Google on antitrust grounds but opted against filing a lawsuit challenging the company. In the meantime, European regulators have fined Google billions of dollars for violating antitrust laws.

The department had been eyeing a September lawsuit against Google. Attorney General William Barr this summer sought to speed up the agency's work, overruling dozens of federal agents who said they needed additional time before they could file a case against Google, The Washington Post previously reported.

State attorneys general, meanwhile, embarked on their own bipartisan probe last summer, an inquiry led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican. That effort has broadened considerably since Democratic and Republican state leaders announced their intentions from the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington. It remains unclear which states may join the Justice Department in any lawsuit it files in the coming days, or whether they could file their own additional complaints. Some Democratic attorneys general also have signaled that they may want to wait until after the 2020 presidential election before deciding their next steps.

Adding to Google's headaches, the White House is expected to host Republican attorneys general on Wednesday to discuss a decades-old federal law that spares social media platforms from being held liable for content posted by their users, according to the two people, who added that it is not clear whether Democrats have been invited to that gathering.

The two people said President Donald Trump is expected to join the meeting, which comes weeks after the Justice Department publicly called on Congress to change the law, known as Section 230. Barr and the Justice Department endorsed the revisions partly because of claims that social media sites, including Google-owned YouTube, moderate content online in a way that censors conservative users and viewpoints.

Trump has echoed those claims, generally without providing evidence, and many Silicon Valley tech companies vehemently deny the charges. The president this year signed an executive order that opened the door for the U.S. government to assume oversight of political speech on the Internet; many tech giants, through nonprofits they support, have challenged its constitutionality in court.

"Online censorship goes far beyond the issue of free speech, it's also one of protecting consumers and ensuring they are informed of their rights and resources to fight back under the law," White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement. "State attorneys general are on the front lines of this issue and President Trump wants to hear their perspectives."

 

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