Google Ought to Be Handled as Utility, Ohio Argues in New Lawsuit

Google’s critics have said for years that it should be treated like a public utility company. On Tuesday, the Ohio Attorney General filed a lawsuit asking a judge to rule that the search firm was one.

The case adds to the legal problems facing the alphabet Inc.

Goog 0.68%

Subsidiary that has also faced antitrust lawsuits from the Department of Justice and a separate state consortium led by Colorado and Texas. The company is grappling with cases in countries around the world where its dominance as a search provider has led regulators to undermine its power.

Amid the string of legal challenges, Ohio said it will be the first state in the country to seek a court declaration that Google is a major cellular operator that is subject to state regulation under state law. In the lawsuit, which does not seek monetary damages, Google is required to give competitors the same rights to advertising and product placement as they do to its own services.

“If you own the railroad, the electric company, or the cell phone tower, you must treat everyone equally and give everyone access,” said Dave Yost, Republican attorney general for Ohio.

A Google spokesman said the remedial action sought in the Ohio lawsuit would degrade the company’s search results and affect the company’s ability to connect directly with customers. “Ohioans just don’t want the government to run Google like a gas or electricity company,” a spokesman said. “This lawsuit has no factual or legal basis and we will defend ourselves against it in court.”

Ohio’s Attorney General Dave Yost has filed the lawsuit against Google.


Photo:

Julie Carr Smyth / Associated Press

In a statement alongside a Supreme Court order in April, Judge Clarence Thomas suggested that he believes regulating technology platforms is beneficial as a utility.

This case concerned the practice of former President Donald Trump of preventing certain people from following his Twitter account. The court dismissed the case as contentious as Mr Trump was no longer in office, but Judge Thomas suggested regulating social media networks like Twitter, Google, and other tech companies to limit their power over who speaks and what is said about their platforms.

However, the Ohio case does not focus on language, but rather on Google’s tendency to display search results that lead users to its own products rather than competing services.

According to StatCounter, a web analytics company, Google accounts for 91% of global search queries. Google’s decade-long lead in search has helped it gather inquiries that will allow it to improve its service and offerings from its competitor – Microsoft. – to complicate corps

Bing or DuckDuckGo – to compete.

For example, the search engine appears to have displayed videos from its online video service YouTube over similar clips from Facebook Inc.

The company has also faced allegations that it is removing content such as song lyrics and weather from other websites and posting it in so-called knowledge boxes in response to requests, rather than directing users to websites that are the source of that information.

The Justice Department is filing an antitrust lawsuit against Google. The technology giant ended up in the crosshairs of the federal supervisory authorities. Jason Bellini from the WSJ reports. Photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images (video from 10/20/20)

Google previously said that it doesn’t prefer YouTube and that it doesn’t search other websites for useful information.

In 2020, two-thirds of Google searches ended without a click, according to the analysis of 5.1 trillion search queries by SimilarWeb, a digital measurement service. Rand Fishkin, SparkToro’s chief executive who worked with SimilarWeb on the investigation, said the practice kept users on Google’s website, where they were served ads, and stole traffic and advertising money from other websites.

In March, Google said in a blog post that SimilarWeb’s methodology was flawed because some people refine their searches before clicking their way to a website. It said its search engine sends billions of clicks to websites every day.

Mr. Yost argues that Google’s practices prevent Ohioans from making informed decisions by denying them full access to all information available. For example, a search for a flight could direct a user to Google Flights instead of showing travel deals from services like Orbitz and Travelocity.

Legal scholars said there was little precedent for the case. “I don’t know how it would be possible to regulate the company while protecting it from competition,” said Mark A. Jamison, an economics professor at the University of Florida.

The concept of transportation and public utilities goes back to disputes over price controls or denial of service in the late 19th century. Courts ruled that railroads, water utilities, pipelines and ferries had to charge reasonable tariffs and serve the public without discrimination, but had government-like powers, special privileges and protection from competition.

Such litigation faded in the 20th century when Supreme Court rulings allowed much broader state regulation of trade that did not rely on such distinctions between private and public interests.

“It seems like a 19th century lawsuit to me,” said Daniel A. Crane, contract and antitrust professor at the University of Michigan Law School.

Ohio joined 37 others in a case cited by Colorado’s attorney general suing Google in the US District Court for the District of Columbia for anti-competitive behavior under the Sherman Act. This lawsuit claims monopoly power over search engines through exclusive agreements like the deal with Apple Inc.

to be the default search provider on iPhones.

Write to Tripp Mickle at Tripp.Mickle@wsj.com

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