Google’s search business targeted in looming US anti-trust case

The California-based company controls about 90% of the online search market in the US

FILE - This Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, file photo shows Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.  As the Trump administration moves toward antitrust action against search giant Google, it’s campaigning to enlist support from sympathetic state attorneys general across the country. And President Donald Trump is pushing his campaign against Big Tech on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, touting curbs on legal protections for social media platforms he denounces as biased against conservative views.(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
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Google’s search engine, one of the most-profitable businesses in history, is about to face its biggest challenge as the US government readies an anti-trust lawsuit accusing the company of crushing competition to protect and extend its monopoly.

After a 14-month investigation, the Justice Department is homing in on whether Google skews search results to favour its own products and whether it uses an iron fist over access to users to shut out rivals, according to people familiar with the matter.

Google, which controls about 90 per cent of the online search market in the US, has long been a target of rivals that complain it used its power to snuff out competition across the internet.

What started out as a college research project in the late 1990s now generates about $100 billion (Dh367bn) in highly-profitable revenue each year. The search engine decides the fates of thousands of businesses online and has funded Google’s expansion into email, online video, smartphone software, maps, cloud computing, autonomous vehicles and other forms of digital ads.

European competition regulators have fined Google billions of euros for breaking anti-trust laws.

But US enforcers have left the company mostly untouched since the Federal Trade Commission closed a probe in early 2013 with no action. Now, Attorney General William Barr is on the cusp of what could be the biggest US monopoly case since Microsoft was sued by the government more than two decades ago.

Mr Barr has been a key ally in Donald Trump’s crackdown on technology giants. The US president has railed against internet companies for allegedly censoring conservative viewpoints online.

While some involved in the Google case expected it to be filed as soon as next week, that timing will likely be pushed back, possibly to the following week, according to two people familiar with the matter.

State attorneys general and Justice Department lawyers have been discussing final preparations for the case this week in Washington. The people asked not to be identified discussing private matters.

Senior Justice Department officials met with Google representatives this week to discuss two prongs of the investigation: search bias and search distribution, according to one of the people.

Search bias is the allegation that Google skews results to favour its own properties, such as a shopping service, travel bookings and local business listings.

Search distribution centres on agreements with device makers and other partners to provide Google search as a default to users.

In 2018, Goldman Sachs estimated Google paid Apple $9bn to get its search engine on Apple’s Safari web browser and other prime spots on Apple devices.

It’s impossible for small search engine competitors to compete with Google’s deep pockets and outbid it for valuable placements like Apple’s browser, according to Gabriel Weinberg, chief executive officer of DuckDuckGo, a privacy-focused search provider that has complained about Google.