Google faces Missouri probe as antitrust concerns grow

Register now

(Bloomberg) -- The simmering debate over whether big internet companies are breaking antitrust rules to extend their dominance has a new front -- Missouri.

The state’s attorney general announced Monday he has opened an investigation into whether Alphabet Inc.’s Google manipulated search results to benefit its own products over those of its competitors. He is also looking into whether Google scrapes information without permission from competitors like Yelp Inc. to use for its own search results, and is questioning Google’s collection, use and disclosure of information about its users and their online activities.

“We are looking at allegations that Google has lifted information from competitors’ own sites,” Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley said in a press conference broadcast on his Facebook page. “This misappropriation hurts business and it threatens to drive Google’s competitors out of the market.” Hawley issued a subpoena requiring Google to cooperate with the probe.

The announcement comes two months after Yelp, which has long battled to keep Google from taking over the business of consumer reviews of small businesses, sent a letter complaining about Google to regulators, members of Congress and state attorneys general. Yelp said in the letter that Google has been violating commitments it made after the U.S. Federal Trade Commission closed an investigation into the search engine’s practices in 2013.

“We have not yet received the subpoena, however, we have strong privacy protections in place for our users and continue to operate in a highly competitive and dynamic environment," a Google spokeswoman said in an e-mailed statement.

FTC Investigation

The idea that Google was unfairly suppressing search results for its competitors got scant traction in the U.S. after the FTC concluded in 2013 that the company wasn’t trying to stifle competition. But as Google and other tech companies like Inc. and Facebook Inc. continue to become more powerful, some U.S. politicians and academics are posing questions more forcefully about whether antitrust laws should be changed or brought to bear in a new way against the tech giants.

In Europe, where antitrust law has been wielded much more aggressively, Google was fined 2.4 billion euros ($2.8 billion) last June for giving its own shopping products more prominent placement in its search results than those of competitors. The European Union is also investigating Google over its Android mobile platform and its AdSense for Search service.

Hawley, a Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate, has opened his investigation as politicians on both sides of the political spectrum are becoming more critical of large tech companies in the wake of revelations that Russian state agents used social networks to try and influence the 2016 Presidential election.

Bloomberg News