US Justice Department hits Google with biggest antitrust lawsuit in two decades

The US Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google, accusing the company of illegally using its market power to fend off rivals and said nothing was off the table, including a breakup of the internet search and advertising company.

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The United States Justice Department and 11 states filed an antitrust lawsuit against Alphabet Inc's Google on Tuesday (Oct 20) for allegedly breaking the law in using its market power to fend off rivals, and called for action.

The lawsuit marks the biggest antitrust case in a generation, comparable to the lawsuit against Microsoft Corp filed in 1998 and the 1974 case against AT&T which led to the breakup of the Bell System.

The lawsuit claims that Google acted unlawfully to maintain its position in search and search advertising on the Internet.

It states that "absent a court order, Google will continue executing its anti-competitive strategy, crippling the competitive process, reducing consumer choice, and stifling innovation.

"Google is now the unchallenged gateway to the Internet for billions of users worldwide... For the sake of American consumers, advertisers, and all companies now reliant on the Internet economy, the time has come to stop Google's anti-competitive conduct and restore competition."

When asked on a conference call what specific action should be taken, a Justice Department official said: "Nothing is off the table."

Google, whose search engine is so ubiquitous that its name has become a verb, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The company had revenue of US$162 billion (S$219 billion) in 2019, more than the nation of Hungary.

Republican Senator Josh Hawley, a vociferous Google critic, accused the company of keeping power through "illegal means" and called the lawsuit "the most important antitrust case in a generation".

The Microsoft lawsuit was credited with clearing the way for the explosive growth of the Internet since the antitrust scrutiny prevented the company from attempting to thwart competitors.

Tuesday's federal lawsuit marks a rare moment of agreement between the Trump administration and progressive Democrats.

US Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted on Sept 10, using the hashtag #BreakUpBigTech, that she wanted "swift, aggressive action".

Coming just days before the US presidential election, the filing's timing could be seen as a political gesture since it fulfils a promise made by President Donald Trump to his supporters to hold certain companies to account for allegedly stifling conservative voices.

Republicans often complain that social media companies including Google take action to reduce the spread of conservative viewpoints on their platforms. Lawmakers have sought, without explaining how, to use antitrust laws to compel Big Tech to stop these alleged limitations.

Shares of Alphabet rose nearly 1 per cent after news the government lawsuit was imminent. There was some doubt in the markets that Washington lawmakers would actually come together and take action, according to Mr Neil Campling, head of tech media and telecoms research at Mirabaud Securities in London.

"It's like locking the proverbial door after the horse has bolted. Google has already got the monopolistic position, has invested billions in infrastructure, AI, technologies, software, engineering and talent. You can't simply unwind a decade of significant progress."

The 11 states which joined the lawsuit all have Republican attorneys-general.

More lawsuits could be in the offing since probes by state attorneys-general into Google's broader businesses are under way, as well as an investigation of its broader digital advertising businesses.

A group of attorneys general led by Texas is expected to file a separate lawsuit focused on digital advertising as soon as November, while a group led by Colorado is contemplating a more expansive lawsuit against Google.

The lawsuit comes more than a year after the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission began antitrust investigations into four big tech companies: Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.

Seven years ago, the FTC settled an antitrust probe into Google over alleged bias in its search function to favor its products, among other issues. The settlement came over the objections of some FTC staff attorneys.

Google has faced similar legal challenges overseas.

The European Union fined Google US$1.7 billion in 2019 for stopping websites from using Google's rivals to find advertisers, US$2.6 billion in 2017 for favouring its own shopping business in search, and US$4.9 billion in 2018 for blocking rivals on its wireless Android operating system.