DOJ pushes ahead with Google Maps antitrust probe

Justice Department antitrust lawyers are homing in on yet another Google target: the company’s vast mapping business.

DOJ officials have been meeting with Google’s competitors and customers in recent weeks to decide who would be the best witnesses in any potential lawsuit challenging its dominant position in the market for digital maps and location information, according to three people with knowledge of the matter. That trove of data includes the location of businesses, parks, buildings and landmarks. More meetings are scheduled in the coming month, the people said.

The new round of meetings comes less than a month after the DOJ filed a long-awaited lawsuit targeting Google’s advertising operations.

A lawsuit targeting Google Maps could be filed this year, three people with knowledge said. The investigation is ongoing, and no decision has been made on whether to file a case or on what to include in a complaint, those three people said.

The timing of antitrust cases such as this is always shifting and often delayed. Unlike merger reviews, other antitrust cases are not subject to any time constraints. Reports that the DOJ was preparing an advertising-focused case against Google date back to 2020, but it took more than two more years before a lawsuit materialized. Still, the map investigation is a priority for the department’s antitrust division, and prosecutors are working quickly to reach a conclusion, the people said.

The investigation is broadly focused on Google’s control of digital maps and location data, in this instance the precise location of a host of different places, which is a key part of its search results, the people said.

A lawsuit challenging Google’s maps business would open up an unprecedented third front in as many years in the Justice Department’s antitrust war against the company.

The investigations date back to the Trump Justice Department when it opened a wide-ranging antitrust probe into every part of the company’s business in early 2019.

The DOJ and a group of state attorneys general first sued Google in October 2020, accusing the company of illegally monopolizing the online search market. That case is currently set to go to trial in September. Then in January, Google was hit with a second case from the DOJ and an overlapping group of states targeting its online advertising business.

Google is also facing an advertising-related lawsuit from a Texas-led group of states, and litigation over conduct involving its Google Play mobile app store from a Utah-led group of states. The latter is also slated for trial in the Fall.

A DOJ spokesperson declined to comment.

Google’s trove of map data is often used in search queries, such as “pizza near me.” However, Google Maps is also a key part of the underlying technology used in apps such as delivery services and ride-share companies.

The DOJ is examining whether Google illegally forces app developers to use its mapping and search products as a bundle, rather than choose competing options for different services, the people said. For example, Google has extensive data on the locations of businesses and other places, and prosecutors are examining how the company may prevent developers from using that data with a competing mapping service.

Google has said its policies are designed to improve user experience, saying that combining Google and non-Google information could cause errors and safety risks. It also says it licenses some mapping data from third parties and faces restrictions on how that data can be shared.

“Developers choose to use Google Maps Platform out of many options because they recognize it provides helpful, high-quality information,” said Google spokesperson Peter Schottenfels. “They are also free to use other mapping services in addition to Google Maps Platform — and many do.”

The DOJ is also scrutinizing the Google Automotive Services offering for automakers, which packages together Google Maps with the Google Play app store and the company’s voice assistant, the people said. It can be difficult for carmakers and the companies that manufacture the information and entertainment systems to mix products and services such as voice assistants offered by competing companies if they also use Google Maps.

“There is enormous competition in the connected car space, including an array of companies offering car infotainment systems,” Schottenfels said, including hundreds of car models supporting Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa. “Even if automakers choose Android Automotive OS, they aren’t required to use Google Automotive Services for their cars.”

Reuters earlier reported on some parts of the DOJ investigation. Germany’s antitrust authority is also investigating Google’s mapping business.

DOJ's Jonathan Kanter speaks.

Jonathan Kanter, the DOJ’s antitrust head, has said the largest tech companies are looking to use their various lines of business to boost their monopoly power in a core market. | Getty Images

Google’s mapping business has also faced congressional scrutiny. According to the House Judiciary Committee’s 2020 staff report on antitrust issues in the tech sector, Google is “effectively forcing [developers] to choose whether they will use all of Google’s mapping services or none of them.”

The government is also scrutinizing contract provisions that require customers to share app data with Google. As an example, Google requires food delivery apps to share data on customer searches and deliveries.

The House report also goes into detail on how Google built its map business through acquisitions, including its 2013 purchase of competitor Waze. Those deals could also get attention in an eventual lawsuit.

The DOJ’s advertising case filed in January focused heavily on a number of Google’s acquisitions in that sector, and is seeking to break up major parts of the company’s ad business.

Jonathan Kanter, the DOJ’s antitrust head — and a longtime critic of Google while in private practice — has said the largest tech companies are looking to use their various lines of business to boost their monopoly power in a core market, in this case search, as well as leverage that core market power to build dominant positions in new markets.

While all three investigations — search, advertising and maps — are technically separate components of the DOJ’s overarching Google investigation, they highlight how the department views its role in policing fast-moving technology markets.

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