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The Department of Justice is preparing to conduct a wide-ranging antitrust investigation into Google's business practices, multiple sources have said to news agencies. The scope of the sweep looks to include the company's primary search and online advertising operations. The speculation comes in the wake of a series of penalties and further awaiting trials in other parts of the world on Google's anti-competitive behavior.
The Federal Trade Commission had previously assessed Google's practices before the firm agreed to minor remedial measures in 2013 covering competitors' use of standard essential patents, biasing in search results, and allowing AdWords clients to run campaigns on rival platforms. The deal kept the company wholly intact and signaled a lax attitude towards regulating the unfettered growth of digital media giants such as rival Apple and Facebook.
In February, the commission — perhaps caught behind the ball on the tech sector's socioeconomic influence — launched a task force dedicated to the industry. Sources to The New York Times say that staff attorneys were specifically looking into Google's search and online advertising practices. It has since started directing any parties who have competition complaints against Google to the DoJ. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the potential antitrust probe.
In the past two decades and change, Google has grown into a pillar of today's global digital society. How it's been able to reach so far has been a major concern for champions of competition. One of its overreaching mandates required Android device makers to load the Play Store as the default app store in exchange for getting default services such as Gmail, Google Drive, and YouTube for free. Another mandate was making Google Chrome the default web browser and Google the default search engine on those Android devices.
The Russian government and the European Commission have issued multiple fines to the tech titan, including a record fine of 4.34 billion euros from the commission as a consequence to Google's control of shopping comparison tools in its search engine. India is pursuing its own investigations into Google as well.
In the United States, a growing number of politicians have been calling for big tech to be regulated more aggressively or get broken up. Republicans across the government have long held suspicions that Google has biased its search results to favor Democrats and liberal-leaning groups. In December, CEO Sundar Pichai was grilled by a congressional panel over "Dragonfly," the company's efforts to re-enter the Chinese search market with an engine that complied with censorship laws — Pichai said the project was exploratory and internal tensions have supposedly killed it altogether, but with exacerbated geopolitical and trade tensions between Washington and Beijing, this alongside many other specters has stayed with Google.
It is not clear if and when the DoJ may announce its probe into Google.
House Judiciary Committee panel investigating
Representative David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who chairs the House Antitrust Subcommittee, has announced an investigation into the state of competition in the digital space. The committee will explore whether "dominant firms are engaging in anti-competitive conduct" and will determine if existing laws and marketplace policies are sufficient enough to support competition.
The committee will be holding hearings and may request information from industry firms.
Justice Department could file antitrust case against Google as early as this month
According to a report in the New York Times, Justice Department Attorney General William P. Barr has overruled three lawyers who wanted more time to build their antitrust case against Google's parent company Alphabet. If he gets his way, which looks increasingly likely, the suit could be filed in the coming weeks, which could mean as early as this month. Mr. Barr's deadline comes with the suspicion that he wants to speed up proceedings in order to take credit for it in the run up to the US election. The influence of major tech firms in the US is a cause for concern on both sides of the political divide, and a successful suit against Google would be seen as a major coup for the Trump administration at a crucial time. The early filing could weaken the case, but only time will tell.