The United States Department of Justice and a group of eight states have filed a lawsuit against Google, accusing the company of illegally abusing a monopoly over the technology that powers online advertising. This is the first antitrust lawsuit against a tech giant under President Biden, and marks a significant escalation in legal pressure on one of the world’s largest internet companies. The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, states that Google has “corrupted legitimate competition in the ad tech industry by engaging in a systematic campaign to seize control of the wide swath of high-tech tools used by publishers, advertisers, and brokers to facilitate digital advertising.”
This is the fifth antitrust lawsuit filed by U.S. officials against Google since 2020, as lawmakers and regulators around the world try to rein in the power that big tech companies exert over information and commerce online. In Europe, Amazon, Google, Apple, and others have faced antitrust investigations and charges, while regulators have passed new laws to limit social media’s harms and some practices such as data collection.
In the United States, Google has faced particularly intense scrutiny. In 2020, a group of states led by Texas filed an antitrust lawsuit against the company involving advertising technology. The Justice Department and another group of states separately sued Google over claims that it abused its dominance over online search. In 2021, some states also sued over the company’s app store practices.
The new lawsuit “adds another important complication to Google’s efforts to deal with regulators worldwide,” said William Kovacic, a former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. “There’s a chance one or more of these challenges is going to make its way through and hit the target.”
Peter Schottenfels, a Google spokesman, said the lawsuit “attempts to pick winners and losers in the highly competitive advertising technology sector.” He also stated that it echoes the “unfounded” lawsuit led by Texas in 2020, and that the Justice Department’s latest suit makes a flawed argument that would slow innovation and harm publishers.
The lawsuit asks the court to force Google to sell much of its suite of ad technology products, which include software for buying and selling ads, a marketplace to complete the transactions and a service for showcasing the ads across the internet. The lawsuit also asks the court to stop the company from engaging in allegedly anticompetitive practices.
The Biden administration is trying to use uncommon legal theories to clip the wings of some of America’s largest businesses. The Federal Trade Commission recently asked a judge to block Meta from buying a virtual-reality start-up, a rare case that argues a deal could harm potential competition in a nascent market. The agency has also challenged Microsoft’s $69 billion purchase of the video game publisher Activision Blizzard, a notable action because the two companies are not primarily seen as direct competitors.
These efforts are expected to meet fierce resistance in federal courts. Judges have for decades subscribed to a view that antitrust violations should mostly be determined by whether they increase prices for consumers. But Jonathan Kanter, the chief of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, and Lina Khan, the F.T.C. chair, have said they are willing to lose cases that allow them to stretch the boundaries of the law and that put corporate America on notice.
The lawsuit on Tuesday describes a campaign by Google to monopolize advertising technology and then abuse that dominance, to the detriment of publishers, advertisers, and ultimately consumers. The Justice Department and the states, which include New York and California, said Google had built its monopoly by buying up crucial tools that delivered ads to publishers. As