Google strengthens as U.S. antitrust case weakens

Google said that it wouldn’t use health data from Fitbit in a bid to assuage European watchdogs’ concerns over that deal

  
The Google logo is pictured at the entrance to the Google offices. January 18, 2019.

The Google logo is pictured at the entrance to the Google offices. January 18, 2019.

REUTERS/Hannah McKay

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

SAN FRANCISCO  - Google’s legal foes could be about to strike their first blow. The U.S. Justice Department may file a lawsuit against the Alphabet unit by the end of the summer. As time passes, the search firm gets bigger, and the regulator’s case gets muddier.

It’s not like Google doesn’t deserve scrutiny. The company has 90% of the market in some areas of ad technology. Its lock on online search has spurred complaints from companies like Yelp. Some states’ attorneys general may join the Justice Department in a lawsuit. Google said on Monday that it wouldn’t use health data from Fitbit, the fitness tracker it wants to buy for $2.1 billion, in a bid to assuage European watchdogs’ concerns over that deal.

The virus-induced lockdown hasn’t much held Google back. Its parent’s market value has risen around 50% since this year’s low in mid-March, to $1 trillion. Analysts expect its revenue to increase over 20% in 2021, according to Refinitiv estimates. And like other tech giants including Apple, Google keeps doing deals. It said on June 30 that it would buy Canadian smart-glasses maker North – even though the Fitbit deal has yet to close.

Yet U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who will lead the charge against anticompetitive behavior, isn’t doing himself any favors. He and President Donald Trump have complained that online platforms are targeting conservative views for removal. Barr told Fox News in June that problem could be remedied through antitrust laws. Trump allies, like Oracle Chief Executive Safra Catz and media mogul Rupert Murdoch, are among those who have complained about Google publicly.

That gives Alphabet room to fight back by arguing that politics, not consumer welfare, are fueling its detractors. In another recent lawsuit, the Pentagon was forced to review a $10 billion cloud-computing contract after Amazon.com alleged improper interference by Trump. How Google fares could affect the way the Justice Department handles Facebook, Amazon and Apple, which are also part of the agency’s broad antitrust review.

Barr isn’t the only cop stalking Silicon Valley. The European Union, under antitrust czar Margrethe Vestager, has a more aggressive track record in policing tech and is considering rules to curb their power. But the regulator closest to home may be the one that struggles to land a decisive blow.

CONTEXT NEWS

- Alphabet’s Google has offered not to use the health data of fitness tracker company Fitbit to help it target ads, in an attempt to win European Union regulatory approval for the bid announced in November. The European Commission extended its deadline for a decision on the $2.1 billion deal to Aug. 4 from July 20 following Google’s proposal.

- Officials at the U.S. Justice Department and some states attorneys general held a virtual meeting on June 26 to discuss their antitrust case against Alphabet unit Google. A lawsuit focusing on its market power in advertising technology and possibly other areas could be filed by the end of this summer.

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

(Editing by John Foley and Amanda Gomez) ((gina.chon@thomsonreuters.com; Reuters Messaging: gina.chon.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

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