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Google Critics Cheer Justice Department Suit, but Skeptics Question Motives

10/20/2020 | 02:03pm EST

By Ryan Tracy

WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department's antitrust lawsuit against Alphabet Inc.'s Google drew bipartisan praise from lawmakers and cheers from the company's competitors, while prompting skepticism and accusations of political bias from larger technology companies and critics of the Trump administration.

The reactions foreshadowed the lengthy debate to come from Washington to Silicon Valley over the merits of a government enforcement action targeting one of America's most successful companies.

"It cannot escape notice that this suit was hurried out on the eve of an election where the [Trump] Administration has aggressively pressured tech companies to take actions in its favor," said a statement from the Computer & Communications Industry Association, whose members include larger tech companies such as Google, Facebook Inc. and Amazon.com Inc.

"Antitrust law should be driven by consumers' interests, not political imperatives," the group said. "We look forward to a court's review of the facts and the evidence."

Justice Department officials, speaking to reporters Tuesday, said politics played no role in the decision to file the suit, which they described as targeted at the core of Google's business.

"The department moves ahead when the facts and the law support doing so, and when there is a conclusion that governmental action would be beneficial to competition," said Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen.

Google itself called the suit, which accused it of unlawfully maintaining a monopoly on online searches, "deeply flawed."

"People use Google because they choose to, not because they're forced to, or because they can't find alternatives," said Kent Walker, the company's chief legal officer, in a blog post.

Rep. David Cicilline (D., R.I.) who led a recent House probe accusing Google of anticompetitive conduct, called the lawsuit "long overdue" and said he hoped the case would go beyond search to focus on "anticompetitive business practices Google is using to leverage this monopoly into other areas, such as maps, browsers, video, and voice assistants."

Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.), the former attorney general of Missouri, told reporters on a conference call that the suit was a sign of growing discontent with tech companies. He recalled how years ago he struggled to recruit other states to join him in an investigation into Google.

"Seeing the case header 'United States vs. Google' is a wonderful, wonderful thing," Mr. Hawley said.

Companies that have raised concerns about Google's market power saw the suit as an opportunity, though they cautioned that much is riding on the outcome.

"Historians will hopefully look at today as the beginning of the end of the surveillance economy. But the only way that happens is through action that achieves meaningful results," said DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg in a statement. The company has a search engine and web browser that competes with Google.

Yelp Inc., the search company that provides crowdsourced business reviews, called the move "a critical first step." Yelp's longstanding complaints about bias in Google's search results weren't directly called out in the suit,

"Yelp applauds the work of the DOJ and encourages swift action by state attorneys general who are conducting parallel investigations into other aspects of Google's business," said a blog post from Luther Lowe, the company's senior vice president of public policy.

David Chavern, CEO of the News Media Alliance, which represents news publishers, expressed disappointment that the federal suit didn't include ad technology, an industry of serving ads online where many companies that deal with Google say it has expanded and abused its power, taking revenue from publishers. Google denies abusing its power.

"News publishers are particularly harmed by Google's control of ad tech -- and that doesn't appear to be covered at all by the DOJ's action today," Mr. Chavern said.

News Corp, owner of The Wall Street Journal, has long complained to antitrust authorities at home and abroad about both Google's search practices and its dominance in digital advertising. A News Corp spokesman declined to comment Tuesday.

The lawsuit was joined by 11 state attorneys general, all Republicans. Alex Harman, competition policy advocate at the advocacy group Public Citizen, said the lack of bipartisan support, along with the narrow focus of the suit, "is evidence of an unserious approach driven by politics."

A statement put out by a bipartisan group of states attorneys general, including Democrat Letitia James of New York, said they were conducting their own investigation of Google and could eventually decide to join the federal suit later if they decide to file their own case.

Write to Ryan Tracy at ryan.tracy@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

10-20-20 1402ET

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