Ohio Asks Court to Declare Google a Public Utility

The landmark lawsuit aims to bring the tech giant under government regulation.

Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

DELAWARE, Ohio (CN) — In a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost is asking a state court to declare Google a public utility.

“Google uses its dominance of internet search to steer Ohioans to Google’s own products — that’s discriminatory and anti-competitive,” Yost said in a statement. “When you own the railroad or the electric company or the cellphone tower, you have to treat everyone the same and give everybody access.”

The lawsuit, filed in Delaware County Common Pleas Court, seeks a legal declaration that Google is a common carrier, or public utility, subject to proper government regulation.

It also claims that Google has a duty to offer sources or competitors rights equal to its own, meaning that its own products, services and websites on search results pages should not be prioritized over competing services.

“There are high barriers to entry for Google’s search competitors,” the complaint states. “Unlike traditional markets where competitors can introduce equivalent but cheaper alternatives, consumers in the marketplace at issue here, i.e., internet searches, never pay a monetary fee. Thus, the nearly exclusive avenue for competitive entry is by creating a better search result.” (Emphasis in original.)

The suit says the bar was much lower when internet search services were new, but search algorithms have become better at producing relevant results.

Yost, a Republican, claims Google’s market dominance gives it a competitive advantage over other search engines.

“Google intentionally structures its results pages to prioritize Google products over organic search results,” the complaint states. “Google intentionally disadvantages competitors, by featuring Google products and services prominently on results pages. It often features Google products and services in attractive formats at the top of the results page above organic search results.”

Yost argues more competition in the general search engine market would benefit consumers through improved privacy protections and more targeted results.

The lawsuit does not seek monetary damages.

Google pushed back on the allegations in a statement Tuesday.

“Google Search is designed to provide people with the most relevant and helpful results,” it said. “AG Yost’s lawsuit would make Google Search results worse and make it harder for small businesses to connect directly with customers. Ohioans simply don’t want the government to run Google like a gas or electric company. This lawsuit has no basis in fact or law and we’ll defend ourselves against it in court.”

Joseph P. Tomain, a law professor at the University of Cincinnati and an expert on regulatory process, said in an interview that the issue comes down to whether companies are conducting business in a fair way.

“For example, Amazon may have a product that competes with another retailer, and they list them a little higher in their advertising, so the question is whether or not that’s fair,” Tomain said.

Tomain said Ohio has a law defining what constitutes a public utility, so the case would come down to whether the state can prove Google fits the criteria.

He said an easier route would be to go through state lawmakers.

“The court has to deal with law on the books,” Tomain said “The legislature can…as long as what they pass is constitutional and reasonable, and both of those are very broad categories, I think they would have a good chance of declaring a public utility, and then setting up rules and regulations for its operation.”

Tomain said the idea behind regulating internet companies such as Google and Amazon are the same as railroad, water pipeline, natural gas pipeline and telephone technology regulations.

Google claims it is not the same as those entities because it does not provide a standardized service for a fee.

This isn’t the first time Yost, a Republican, has gone after the tech giant in court.

Last December, Yost joined 37 other attorneys general in a federal lawsuit claiming Google violated the Sherman Act, which is meant to stop monopolies.

Google said in Tuesday’s statement that its search service helped provide $9.63 billion of economic activity for 51,900 Ohio businesses in 2020.

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