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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Barr, AGs to meet on fragmenting case against Google


Attorney General William Barr will meet with Republican attorneys general Wednesday to kick off three days of discussions between his Justice Department and dozens of states about their looming antitrust lawsuits against Google, three people familiar with the discussions told POLITICO on Tuesday.

But the talks also come amid new signs that the case against Google is splintering along partisan lines.

DOJ is preparing to file a suit as soon as next week centered on the company’s dominance of online search while putting off a decision on Google’s command of advertising technology, the area where state AGs are most inclined to sue. That divide could undermine hopes for a rare bipartisan fight in which attorneys general from heavily Democratic states like New York would line up with President Donald Trump’s attorney general against one of the United States’ largest companies.

The individuals, who asked for anonymity to candidly discuss the probes, said Barr and the states have made no final decisions on either suit. They said crucial debates also remain ongoing about what remedies to seek — which could include requiring Google to sell off parts of its business, such as the Android operating system or YouTube.

Barr’s role: The attorney general has become an increasingly partisan lightning rod, including for his role in leading Trump’s spats with Democrats over issues such as federal crackdowns on racial-justice protesters. But antitrust actions to rein in or break up tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon have had bipartisan appeal, including from Democrats like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who recently argued against letting “Big Tech’s army of lawyers, lobbyists, & consultants use Barr as an excuse to wriggle out of the law.”

Barr is expected to attend a meeting Wednesday at the White House with Trump and Republican attorneys general from Texas, Louisiana and Arizona, among other states, to discuss a 1996 law that shields online companies from liability for much of their content. The White House has sought to weaken that law to resolve GOP accusations about anti-conservative bias, and an executive order that Trump signed in May asks state AGs to review whether internet companies have mistreated their users by censoring political speech.

While Wednesday’s meeting is not slated to address the Google investigation, the company is likely to come up in the discussions, one of the people said.

Later in the day, the Justice Department is expected to host meetings that will continue through Friday on DOJ’s plans for a Google suit and remedies it may pursue. Barr is expected to attend some of the discussions, as will some of the Republican attorneys general who visited the White House. AGs from other states may attend virtually.

What’s next: The DOJ and states are considering twin lawsuits against the search giant that could proceed in phases: Justice will lay out its thoughts on a potential antitrust suit related to the tech giant’s dominance in the search market, which could be filed as soon as next week but may require more time to prepare, the people said. That suit would include allegations related to contracts with Apple and smartphone manufacturers who use the Android operating system to set Google as the default search engine on mobile devices.

The states will have an opportunity to decide if they want to join the DOJ’s proposed suit.

DOJ’s investigation into the advertising technology market — which has been the focus of state attorneys general for more than a year and was the subject of a Senate hearing last week — remains ongoing. While the Justice Department has no immediate plans related to ad tech, the states expect to be ready to file a separate lawsuit in the coming weeks, two of the people said.

Other important players: Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, a Democrat who has helmed the states’ probe into Google’s search dominance, has been reluctant to push forward with an antitrust suit at this time and has advocated for continuing the investigation. A key question is whether he will sign onto a Justice Department antitrust suit on search or push for the states to continue their own probe.

Another major question mark is New York Attorney General Tish James, who is taking part in the Google probe and heading a separate antitrust probe into Facebook. James has supported using antitrust to target major tech companies, testifying last week at a hearing in New York’s Senate on a bill that would strengthen the state’s antitrust law for that purpose. On Google, though, she may be inclined to go along with the Democratic AGs who are leading the state investigation, two of the people said.



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