Missouri AG Launches Antitrust And Privacy Probe Of Google

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley said Monday that he is investigating whether Google violated state antitrust and consumer protection laws.

“When a company has access to as much consumer information as Google does, it’s my duty to ensure they are using it appropriately,” Hawley stated. He says he has sent Google a subpoena.

The investigation will focus on Google's use of data about consumers, as well as allegations that it discriminates against competitors in the search results. Hawley specifically is questioning whether Google's privacy policy adequately discloses its data-mining practices.

He says Google "collects substantial information" about consumers' use of services like the shopping search engine "Google Shopping," and airline booking service "Google Flights."

"Through this extensive cross-platform data collection, Google can construct highly detailed profiles of users and their online activity," Hawley says in a fact sheet issued Monday. "Google leverages this user information as part of its highly profitable online advertising business, and it also may sell certain user information to third parties."

Hawley also argues that Google may "manipulate the results of its search engine" to favor its own services, even if its algorithms "might otherwise indicate that the websites are less relevant to a user’s search than are competitors’ websites."

Additionally, Hawley says he plans to investigate allegations that Google wrongly scrapes material from competitors' sites. Yelp recently complained to the FTC that Google was continuing to scrape Yelp's content.

A Google spokesperson says the company hasn't yet received a subpoena. "We have strong privacy protections in place for our users and continue to operate in a highly competitive and dynamic environment," the spokesperson added.

Hawley's move comes as Google and other tech companies are facing increasing pressure from policymakers. Last week, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) said he believes that Google, as well as Facebook and Amazon, should be required to follow the same net neutrality principles as broadband providers. "No one company should have the power to pick and choose which content reaches consumers and which doesn’t," Franken wrote last week week in The Guardian.

Others, however, question whether neutrality concepts can be extended to content companies that explicitly aim to provide relevant results to users.

In 2013, the Federal Trade Commission cleared Google of allegations that it violated antitrust laws by promoting its own offerings -- like Google Maps -- in the search results.

When the FTC closed its case, Google agreed it would allow companies to opt out of appearing in the vertical search engines -- like Google Local -- and still show up in the general search results. Former FTC Chair Jon Leibowitz said at the time that the agency sought that agreement in order to resolve "troubling allegations" that Google misappropriated rivals' content. "Google allegedly 'scraped' the user-generated reviews of local restaurants displayed on Yelp, and led consumers to believe that these reviews were its own. When some of these Web sites complained to Google about this practice, Google allegedly threatened to remove them entirely from Google’s search results," Leibowitz stated.

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