DOJ’s Probe of Google Shifts to Search Dominance

Due to the government's new legal approach to the case, DoubleClick may escape regulation (for now)

Google is still facing a separate lawsuit brought by state attorneys general over its ad business. Getty Images
Headshot of MĂłnica Marie Zorrilla

The Department of Justice’s antitrust lawsuit against Google is still in the pipeline, but a new development in its scope may lead the ubiquitous search engine’s dominant ad stack offering to escape censure. For now.

The impending complaint will focus on Google’s dominance of internet search (and, by extension, the online advertising marketing), according to The New York Times. Per four anonymous sources with knowledge of the department’s plan, the case that will be presented to state attorneys general on Thursday will now be more centered on how Google uses its search engine and agreements with other companies to “harm rivals and consumers,” the publication reported.

The DOJ had been investigating the influence of the company’s ad-tech stack (commonly referred to as DoubleClick) as well, but as maintained by the NYT’s sources, the agency decided to home in on the search engine’s power first because it may be the strongest contender in court. All of this could mean that Google’s dominant suite of advertising tools could remain intact longer than previously thought, in spite of the government and U.S. nonprofit organizations like Omidyar Network and Public Knowledge raising alarm about what could be an anti-competitive situation that goes against the country’s main antitrust laws.

The final draft of the lawsuit has yet to be completed, the NYT noted, and the document may change depending on input from some of the major players in the case, including Attorney General William Barr, who has been particularly invested in the antitrust investigations (even going so far as to appoint a counselor and liaison to give him regular updates on the suit).

As reported by the NYT, Barr and the other Republican state attorneys general who have been pushing to sue Google ahead of the Nov. 3 election will also be meeting today to discuss concerns about social media censorship with President Donald Trump, who has been supportive of antitrust efforts.

As such, other antitrust actions against Google will likely follow this initial complaint, including a separate investigation led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for the 50 states and territories (all but Alabama and California, plus D.C. and Puerto Rico) to probe Google’s digital ad business. This investigation reportedly involves an army of 800 lawyers and a bipartisan executive committee, is almost complete.

Earlier this year, the CEOs of Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Alphabet (the parent company of Google) were virtually hauled in front of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, led by chairman David Cicilline, D-R.I., and ranking member Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc. There, the four Silicon Valley giants were grilled on both antitrust matters and political bias against conservatives for the entire afternoon.

At the hearing, House Judiciary chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. interrogated Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai on the search engine’s impact on journalism and advertising, questioning whether the ability to monetize affects Google’s algorithm in terms of what news appears in a typical user’s search results. Pichai responded that Google’s algorithm doesn’t “take into account a commercial relationship.” When Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., a legislator critical of how Gmail tossed his campaign emails in recipients’ junk folders, confronted Pichai, the CEO stated that Google’s algorithm is also nonpartisan.

Regarding the company’s integration of DoubleClick, Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D. asked Pichai if he could explain how Google uses personally identifiable information to grow its reach for marketers. Pichai alleged that he was “not familiar with the specifics of that particular issue.” Nearly all of Alphabet’s multibillion-dollar revenue comes from Google’s digital ad business—even amid the pandemic, Alphabet’s reported Q1 earnings were $41.2 billion.

@monicroqueta MĂłnica is a breaking news reporter at Adweek.