WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department on Tuesday sued Google for abusing its dominance in online search and advertising — the government’s most significant attempt to protect competition since its groundbreaking case against Microsoft more than 20 years ago.
And it could just be an opening salvo. Other major tech companies including Apple, Amazon and Facebook are under investigation at both the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission.
“Google is the gateway to the internet and a search advertising behemoth,” U.S. Deputy Attorney General Jeff Rosen told reporters. “It has maintained its monopoly power through exclusionary practices that are harmful to competition.”
Lawmakers and consumer advocates have long accused Google of abusing its dominance in online search and advertising. The case filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., alleges that Google uses billions of dollars collected from advertisers to pay phone manufacturers to ensure Google is the default search engine on browsers. That stifles competition and innovation from smaller upstart rivals to Google and harms consumers by reducing the quality of search and limiting privacy protections and alternative search options, the government alleges.
Critics contend that multibillion-dollar fines and mandated changes in Google’s practices imposed by European regulators in recent years weren’t severe enough and Google needs to be broken up to change its conduct. The Justice Department didn’t lay out specific remedies along those lines, although it asked the court to order structural relief “as needed to remedy any anticompetitive harm.”
That opens the door to possible fundamental changes such as a spinoff of the company’s Chrome browser.
Google vowed to defend itself and responded immediately via tweet: “Today’s lawsuit by the Department of Justice is deeply flawed. People use Google because they choose to — not because they’re forced to or because they can’t find alternatives.”
Eleven states, all with Republican attorneys general, joined the federal government in the lawsuit. But several other states demurred.
The attorneys general of New York, Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, Tennessee and Utah released a statement Monday saying they have not concluded their investigation into Google and would want to consolidate their case with the DOJ’s if they decided to file. “It’s a bipartisan statement,” said spokesman Fabien Levy of the New York State attorney general’s office. “There’s things that still need to be fleshed out, basically”
President Donald Trump’s administration has long had Google in its sights. One of Trump’s top economic advisers said two years ago that the White House was considering whether Google searches should be subject to government regulation. Trump has often criticized Google, recycling unfounded claims by conservatives that the search giant is biased against conservatives and suppresses their viewpoints.
Rosen told reporters that allegations of anti-conservative bias are “a totally separate set of concerns” from the issue of competition.
Sally Hubbard, an antitrust expert who runs enforcement strategy at the Open Markets Institute, said it was a welcome surprise to see the Justice Department’s openness to the possibility of structurally breaking up Google, and not just imposing conditions on its behavior as has happened in Europe.
“Traditionally, Republicans are hesitant to speak of breakups,” she said. “Personally, I’ll be very disappointed if I see a settlement. Google has shown it won’t adhere to any behavioral conditions.”
The argument for reining in Google has gathered force as the company stretched far beyond its 1998 roots as a search engine governed by the motto “Don’t Be Evil.” It’s since grown into a diversified goliath with online tentacles that scoop up personal data from billions of people via services ranging from search, video and maps to smartphone software. That data helps feed the advertising machine that has turned Google into a behemoth.
The company owns the leading web browser in Chrome, the world’s largest smartphone operating system in Android, the top video site in YouTube and the most popular digital mapping system. Some critics have singled out YouTube and Android as among Google businesses that should be considered for divestiture.
Google, whose corporate parent Alphabet Inc. has a market value just over $1 trillion, controls about 90% of global web searches. Barring a settlement, a trial would likely begin late next year or in 2022.
The company, based in Mountain View, California, argues that although its businesses are large, they are useful and beneficial to consumers. It maintains that its services face ample competition and have unleashed innovations that help people manage their lives.
Most of Google’s services are offered for free in exchange for personal information that helps it sell its ads.
In a Tuesday presentation with a handful of reporters, Google argued that its services have helped hold down the prices of smartphones and that consumers can easily switch away from services like Google Search even if it’s the default option on smartphones and in some internet browsers.
A recent report from a House Judiciary subcommittee concluded that Google has monopoly power in the market for search. It said the company established its position in several markets through acquisition, snapping up successful technologies that other businesses had developed — buying an estimated 260 companies in 20 years.
The Democratic congressman who led that investigation called Tuesday’s action “long overdue.”
“It is critical that the Justice Department’s lawsuit focuses on Google’s monopolization of search and search advertising, while also targeting the anticompetitive business practices Google is using to leverage this monopoly into other areas, such as maps, browsers, video, and voice assistants,” Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island said in a statement.
Columbia Law professor Tim Wu called the suit almost a carbon copy of the government’s 1998 lawsuit against Microsoft. He said via email that the U.S. government has a decent chance of winning. “However, the likely remedies — i.e., knock it off, no more making Google the default — are not particularly likely to transform the broader tech ecosystem.”
Other advocates, however, said the Justice Department’s timing — it’s only two weeks to Election Day — smacked of politics. The government’s “narrow focus and alienation of the bipartisan state attorneys general is evidence of an unserious approach driven by politics and is likely to result in nothing more than a choreographed slap on the wrist for Google,” Alex Harman, a competition policy advocate at Public Citizen, said in a statement.
Republicans and Democrats have accelerated their criticism of Big Tech in recent months, although sometimes for different reasons. It’s unclear what the status of the government’s suit against Google would be if a Joe Biden administration were to take over next year.
The Justice Department sought support for its suit from states across the country that share concerns about Google’s conduct. A bipartisan coalition of 50 U.S. states and territories, led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, announced a year ago they were investigating Google’s business practices, citing “potential monopolistic behavior.”
Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, South Carolina and Texas joined the Justice Department lawsuit.
By MICHAEL BALSAMO and MARCY GORDON Associated Press, AP Technology Writers Michael Liedtke in San Ramon, Calif., Matt O’Brien in Providence, R.I., and Frank Bajak in Boston contributed to this report.
US to seek automated braking requirement for heavy trucks
In a reversal from Trump administration policies, U.S. auto safety regulators say they will move to require or set standards for automatic emergency braking systems on new heavy trucks.
The Department of Transportation, which includes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, announced the change Friday when it released its spring regulatory agenda.
It also will require what it said are rigorous testing standards for autonomous vehicles, and set up a national database to document automated-vehicle crashes.
The moves by the administration of President Joe Biden run counter to the agency’s stance under President Donald Trump. NHTSA had resisted regulation of automated-vehicle systems, saying it didn’t want to stand in the way of potential life-saving developments. Instead it relied on voluntary safety plans from manufacturers.
NHTSA had proposed a regulation on automatic emergency braking in 2015 before Trump took office, but it languished in the regulatory process. The agency says it has been studying use of the electronic systems, and it plans to publish a proposed rule in the Federal Register in April of next year. When a regulation is published, it opens the door to public comment.
“We are glad to see NHTSA finally take the next step in making large trucks safer by mandating AEB,” said Jason Levine, director of the Center for Auto Safety, which was among the groups that petitioned for the requirement in 2015. “Unfortunately, at this rate, it will still be years until the technology that could help stop the 5,000 truck crash deaths on our roads is required,” he said in an email.
A trade group representing independent big rig drivers says the technology isn’t ready for heavy vehicles and can unexpectedly activate without reason.
“Our members have also reported difficulties operating vehicles in inclement weather when the system is engaged, which has created safety concerns,” the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association said in a statement.
The association says that while the technology is still being perfected, legislators and regulators shouldn’t set time frames for requiring it on all trucks.
However, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group supported by auto insurers, found in a study last year that automatic emergency braking and forward collision warnings could prevent more than 40% of crashes in which semis rear-end other vehicles. A study by the group found that when rear crashes happened, the systems cut speeds by more than half, reducing damage and injuries.
Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, another group that sought the regulation from NHTSA in 2015, said the agency is moving too slowly by not publishing the regulation until next year.
“I don’t understand the delay,” she said. “I know that might sound impatient, but when people are dying on the roads, 5,000 people are dying on the roads each year, and we have proven solutions, we would like to see more immediate action,” she said.
In 2016, NHTSA brokered a deal with 20 automakers representing 99% of U.S. new passenger vehicle sales to voluntarily make automatic emergency braking standard on all models by Sept. 1, 2022. But that deal did not apply to big rigs.
The announcement of the requirements comes two days after four people were killed when a milk tanker going too fast collided with seven passenger vehicles on a Phoenix freeway. At least nine people were injured.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates crashes and makes recommendations to stop them from happening, said Thursday it would send a nine-person team to investigate the Phoenix crash. The agency said it would look at whether automatic emergency braking in the truck would have mitigated or prevented the crash.
Since at least 2015 the NTSB has recommended automatic emergency braking or collision alerts be standard on vehicles.
At present, there are no federal requirements that semis have forward collision warning or automatic emergency braking, even though the systems are becoming common on smaller passenger vehicles.
The systems use cameras and sometimes radar to see objects in front of a vehicle, and they either warn the driver or slow and even stop the vehicle if it’s about to hit something.
DETROIT (AP) — By TOM KRISHER AP Auto Writer
Google pledges to resolve ad privacy probe with UK watchdog
Google has promised to give U.K. regulators a role overseeing its plan to phase out existing ad-tracking technology from its Chrome browser as part of a competition investigation into the tech giant.
The U.K. competition watchdog has been investigating Google’s proposals to remove so-called third-party cookies over concerns they would undermine digital ad competition and entrench the company’s market power.
To address the concerns, Google on Friday offered a set of commitments including giving the Competition and Markets Authority an oversight role as the company designs and develops a replacement technology.
“The emergence of tech giants such as Google has presented competition authorities around the world with new challenges that require a new approach,” Andrea Coscelli, the watchdog’s chief executive, said.
The Competition and Markets Authority will work with tech companies to “shape their behaviour and protect competition to the benefit of consumers,” he said.
The promises also include “substantial limits” on how Google will use and combine individual user data for digital ad purposes and a pledge not to discriminate against rivals in favor of its own ad businesses with the new technology.
If Google’s commitments are accepted, they will be applied globally, the company said in a blog post.
Third-party cookies – snippets of code that log user info – are used to help businesses more effectively target advertising and fund free online content such as newspapers. However, they’ve also been a longstanding source of privacy concerns because they can be used to track users across the internet.
Google shook up the digital ad industry with its plan to do away with third-party cookies, which raised fears newer technology would leave even less room for online ad rivals.
Amazon now says remote work OK 2 days a week
Corporate and tech employees at Amazon won’t have to work in offices full time after coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
The Seattle Times reports the online retail giant said in a company blog post Thursday that those workers can work remotely two days a week. In addition, the employees can work remotely from a domestic location for four full weeks each year.
Amazon’s work policy update follows backlash from some employees to what they interpreted as the expectation they would have to return to the office full time once states reopen.
Some tech companies had launched recruiting campaigns that seemed targeted in part at Amazon workers’ dismay over an end to remote work.
Most Amazon employees will start heading back to offices as soon as local jurisdictions fully reopen — July 1 in Washington state — with the majority of workers in offices by autumn, the company said previously.
Amazon has about 75,000 employees in the greater Seattle area. The company’s new remote-work plan is similar to other large tech companies.
Google said last month that it expected roughly 60% of its workforce to come into the office a few days a week, and for 20% to work from home full time. Google also gave all employees the option to work remotely full time four weeks per year. Facebook and Microsoft have both said most workers can choose to stay remote.
Amazon’s new policy could add to the challenges faced by Seattle’s traditional business core. In pre-pandemic times, tens of thousands of Amazon workers commuted into the South Lake Union neighborhood north of downtown every day. Most haven’t returned.
More than 450 downtown retailers, restaurants and other street-level business locations have closed permanently in the 16 months since the pandemic sent office workers home, according to a Downtown Seattle Association survey.
Of the roughly 175,000 people who worked in downtown offices before the pandemic, 80% continue to work remotely, according to association data.
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