The Justice Department is expected to file an antitrust lawsuit against Google as soon as this month, according to two people familiar with the matter, after Attorney General William Barr overruled dozens of federal attorneys who initially signaled the U.S. government was not ready to bring such a landmark case.
The competition inquiry, which began last year, focuses on Google’s sprawling search and advertising empire and the extent to which it harms rivals and consumers. Federal officials have sought to expedite their work in recent weeks, aiming to file a complaint ideally before the 2020 presidential election, said the two people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a law-enforcement proceeding.
The fast-track timeline initially appeared to worry some career lawyers at DOJ: This summer, more than 30 attorneys communicated their thoughts in an informal poll about the probe, and the vast majority said at the time they were not ready to file a case yet against Google, according to a third person familiar with the matter. The person said they believed only two people at the time were on board with the idea. The DOJ has forged ahead with its work since then under Barr’s direction.
The timeline illustrates the extent to which Barr has sought to mount one of the most high-profile assaults against big tech by the Trump administration. Key details about Barr’s involvement—and that fractious nature of the Google probe at the DOJ in Washington and throughout the U.S.—were first reported earlier Thursday by the New York Times.
A spokesman for Barr did not respond to a request for comment. DOJ declined to comment. Google declined to comment.
An antitrust lawsuit against Google would mark the second major entanglement between the U.S. government and the tech giant over its corporate footprint. Federal regulators under former president Barack Obama similarly probed Google, but his administration ultimately concluded its investigation in 2013 without pursuing significant, structural changes at the Mountain View, Calif.-based behemoth, including a break up of the company.
Seven years later, U.S. officials have returned to the issue out of a broader concern that Google and its digital peers in Silicon Valley have become too big and powerful, making it more difficult for entrepreneurs to launch rival services and consumers to use the web without putting their digital livelihoods at risk. Amazon, Apple and Facebook have undergone similar scrutiny at either DOJ or its sister agency, the Federal Trade Commission, as well as on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are exploring a rewrite of the country’s competition laws.
(Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The DOJ probe into Google has been acrimonious at key turns, and federal officials at one point threatened to go to court to force Google into turning over key documents. Barr, meanwhile, has publicly pilloried the tech industry for the immense economic power it has amassed, often calling for regulation of the way companies collect data, manage their software or moderate content online. His criticisms have come as President Donald Trump has attacked the industry for censoring conservatives online, a charge for which he has provided no proof—and one that the industry strongly denies.
Within DOJ, though, the Google investigation has been the subject of intense internal politicking. Some staff in recent months came to question Barr’s pace and others began to leave the agency outright, the Times first reported on Thursday.
The federal probe occurs as state attorneys general embark on their own investigation into Google, an inquiry that began last year with a high-profile news conference on the steps of the Supreme Court. The bipartisan scrutiny, led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, has reached a critical juncture of its own in recent weeks, as state leaders wrangle over when to file their case and how broadly to target Google’s business.
Paxton for months has focused on Google’s advertising business and the extent to which its dominance online harms other websites, including news publishers. Other state attorneys general, including Colorado’s Phil Weiser, a Democrat, have trained their attention more broadly on Google’s powerful search engine and massive footprint in smartphones with its Android operating system. The attorneys general at times have disagreed over whether to bring a narrow, ad-focused case or something more wide ranging, according to two people familiar with the states’ efforts who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A spokesman for Paxton declined to comment, and a spokesman for Weiser did not immediately respond to a request for comment.