Amid ongoing investigations by the U.S. federal government and almost every other state, California has reportedly launched its own antitrust probe into the world’s biggest advertising agency, Google, as it continues to face scrutiny by U.S. and foreign regulators over its dominance in the online advertising industry, and the potential abuse thereof.
Politico, citing three people with knowledge of the new inquiry, reported late Thursday that the California attorney general, Xavier Becerra, had opened the antitrust probe. It was unclear, the site said, which aspect of Google’s business is being targeted. Becerra’s probe was also said to be separate from the antitrust investigation launched in September by 48 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
The California probe would leave Alabama as the only state that is not known to be investigating Google’s practices.
Becerra’s office declined to comment on the Politico story. “To protect the integrity of our work, it’s our practice not to comment on any pending or potential investigation, even to confirm or deny their existence,” Sarah Lovenheim, a spokesperson for the attorney general, told Gizmodo.
Beyond concerns about Google’s overall dominance in the advertising technology market, regulators have said the company’s business practices may have stifled innovation, violated users’ privacy, and given Google an outsized role in the spread of information online.
Google declined to comment. CEO Sundar Pichai said in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos that with Google’s scale “rightfully comes scrutiny.” “You are right we have bought startups,” he said in response to a related question, “but as a company, we invest every single year in hundreds of startups through our venture arms. These support entrepreneurs and incubators around the world.”
“Past investigations of Google uncovered violations ranging from advertising illegal drugs in the United States to now three antitrust actions brought by the European Commission,” a statement by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office read last year. “None of these previous investigations, however, fully address the source of Google’s sustained market power and the ability to engage in serial and repeated business practices with the intention to protect and maintain that power.”
Google first publicly acknowledged an antitrust probe by the U.S. Justice Department and “more than half” of the state attorneys general in September 2019. In a blog post titled, “Google’s services create choice for consumers, and spur innovation in the U.S.” Ken Walker, senior vice president of global affairs, wrote that DOJ had “announced that it’s starting a review of online platforms,” and that Google expected to answer questions about its practices.
The European Union hit Google with a record $US5 ($7) billion fine in 2018 for violating antitrust regulations. “Google has used Android as a vehicle to cement the dominance of its search engine,” EU Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager said at the time. “These practices have denied rivals the chance to innovate and compete on the merits.”
In February, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission issued a special order demanding Google, among four other major tech companies, hand over details about its mergers and acquisitions during the past decade. Google acquired at least 181 outside firms during this time, according to data available on Crunchbase, as Gizmodo’s Bryan Menegus previously reported.
The FTC confirmed at the time that the project was begun to investigate whether “federal antitrust agencies are getting adequate notice about potentially anti-competitive transactions.” However, the findings, Chairman Joe Simon said, could very well result in enforcement action.