State Attorneys General to Meet With Justice Officials to Coordinate on Google Probe

Date : 01/26/2020 @ 3:29PM
Source : Dow Jones News
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Quote : 1389.95  3.63 (0.26%) @ 7:54PM

State Attorneys General to Meet With Justice Officials to Coordinate on Google Probe

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By John D. McKinnon, Ryan Tracy and Brent Kendall 

WASHINGTON -- State attorneys general will meet with U.S. Justice Department attorneys next week to share information on their respective probes of Alphabet Inc.'s Google unit, a step that could eventually lead to both groups joining forces, according to people familiar with the matter.

The meeting is seen as the start of a periodic dialogue that could expand into more formal cooperation as the probes continue, the people said.

To date, federal and state authorities involved in the probe haven't shared investigative materials about their concurrent probes of Google, some of the people said.

At least seven state attorneys general who are part of the investigation have been invited to the meeting, one of the people said. The group -- comprising the executive committee of the states' investigation into Google -- is led by Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general.

The DOJ declined to comment. The attorneys general either declined to comment or didn't respond.

The state and federal investigations have given considerable focus to Google's powerful position in the lucrative market for online advertising. The company's dominant position in online search and possible anticompetitive behavior by Google in its Android mobile operating system have also drawn scrutiny, according to the people familiar with the matter.

The planned meeting is likely to include discussions on those issues, the scope of the probes and the best division of labor as the investigations move forward, some of the people said.

Google didn't respond to requests for comment. After the state attorneys general launched their probe last year, Google senior vice president for global affairs Kent Walker said the company would cooperate and looks forward "to showing how we are investing in innovation, providing services that people want, and engaging in robust and fair competition."

Google is among a handful of giant technology companies that have come under a government spotlight amid rising concerns that they are using their dominance to stifle competition.

In addition to probes by the states and Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission is examining certain practices at Facebook Inc., including whether it acquired potential rivals such as Instagram and WhatsApp to head off competition. The House Judiciary Committee is looking at Facebook, Google, Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. for possible anticompetitive practices.

The companies have all said they are cooperating with the investigations.

State antitrust enforcers often team up with their federal counterparts, including when the Justice Department and a group of 21 attorneys general worked together when they sued Microsoft Corp. in the late 1990s.

This time around, most state attorneys general have officially joined in the state-level investigation into possible anticompetitive practices by Google.

The size of the coalition reflects "the importance of these issues to Americans across the country, regardless of location or political persuasion," U.S. Attorney General William Barr said last month in a speech to the National Association of Attorneys General in Washington.

Mr. Barr hinted that a broad approach might be best.

"Many online platforms are not only big, but also offer a wide breadth of products and services," he said. "Antitrust enforcers therefore must take an equally broad view of these platforms' offerings, and the relationships between different markets, products and business practices."

Both the DOJ and the states have been beefing up their legal teams. Some state attorneys general have said publicly they need close cooperation with the DOJ in order to take on Google successfully.

Despite the broad bipartisan support for the Google investigation among the attorneys general, there are still political tensions beneath the surface of the government probes into big tech.

Democratic attorneys general have clashed repeatedly with the Trump administration and have gone to court to challenge dozens of its decisions. Those partisan divisions have crept into antitrust matters, too, especially on the proposed merger of wireless carriers T-Mobile US Inc. and Sprint Corp. Though the Justice Department has greenlighted the deal, a group of 13 Democratic-led states and the District of Columbia are suing to stop it.

Coordination broke down in that case to the point that the states didn't give the Justice Department advance notice before filing a lawsuit to block the merger in June, The Wall Street Journal reported at the time. The split created hard feelings on both sides, according to people familiar with the matter.

It is possible partisan divisions could re-emerge in the Google investigation. When it comes to large technology companies, some Democrats are privately skeptical that a Republican-led administration will take what Democrats view as sufficient action to curb perceived abuses of market power.

Fueling that sentiment is the outcome of two recent federal investigations of Facebook and Google's YouTube. Officials on the Federal Trade Commission split along party lines about whether settlements with the firms were tough enough, with Republicans casting the settlements as historic victories and Democrats calling them weak.

--Drew FitzGerald contributed to this article.

Write to John D. McKinnon at john.mckinnon@wsj.com, Ryan Tracy at ryan.tracy@wsj.com and Brent Kendall at brent.kendall@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 26, 2020 10:14 ET (15:14 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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