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Google strikes back in cartel investigation lawsuit

Courts have overturned Google’s motion to dismiss an antitrust suit over its search engine — a lawsuit that could break a core Google service to increase online competition. In a motion for summary judgment filed Dec. 12, the company argues the complaint misrepresents its agreements with browser developers and Android phone manufacturers, unfairly penalizing its success. “Requiring Google not to compete vigorously — or forcing browser developers to change their product designs and provide a poorer experience for their customers,” it says, “would upend competition law.”

The United States Department of Justice and a coalition of attorneys general sued Google in 2020, part of a multifaceted approach to limiting the power of the web giant. (The state and federal lawsuits were filed separately, but largely consolidated.) The last complaint claims that Google used its power and its Android operating system to close off the search market and deny competitors “vital distribution, scale and product recognition”. It seeks structural changes that would limit Google’s power over new entrants.

Google’s moderately edited short argues those search deals — including agreements with Mozilla and Apple to use Google search in their browsers — don’t stop users from trying other search engines and are a result of Google simply outperforming its competitors. “There is no evidence that Google forced Apple, Mozilla or any other browser developer to adopt a design that includes a single default search engine,” the filing states. Likewise, it states that its contracts with Android phone manufacturers do not constitute exclusive deals. And in one separate Colorado suitdenies illegally stacking its search results against specialized “vertical” search engines like Yelp, which has consistently argued that Google favors its own services.

Google Search has faced ongoing antitrust scrutiny in Europe, which has taken a more active approach to anti-monopoly efforts. Last year, the General Court of the European Union upheld a €4.125 billion (about $4.4 billion) fine for imposing “unlawful restrictions” on Android phone makers to consolidate their dominance in search. It was previously censored for demoting a rival shopping search engine into its own service, a move Google claimed to have made to reduce low-quality results.

In the US, increased pressure to fundamentally overhaul antitrust policy — and likely create more legal risk for big tech companies — is due to end in 2022.

But Google and government agencies are still dueling over whether the company broke the existing law. The company is fighting a separate lawsuit alleging it used anti-competitive practices to dominate the ad tech field, though a judge reversed the lawsuit in September, throwing out allegations that Google and Facebook colluded to fix the market. A more recent lawsuit alleges that Google abused its power over Android’s Google Play Store – following on from an ongoing high-profile case brought by Fortnite developer Epic Games.

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