A state court judge in Ohio is allowing Attorney General David Yost to proceed with an effort to prohibit Google from prioritizing its services or products in search results.
In a ruling issued Tuesday, Delaware County Common Pleas Court Judge James Schuck declined to dismiss Yost's claim that Google's search engine is a “common carrier.”
“The court believes, at this stage of the proceeding, that the state should have the ability to take discovery, develop its case, and present evidence to support its claim,” Schuck wrote.
The decision comes one day after a federal appellate panel said in a separate case that social media platforms are not common carriers.
Schuck's ruling stems from a lawsuit brought by Yost last June, when he alleged that Google should be considered both a “common carrier” and a “public utility” -- comparable to a gas or electric company -- because it dominates the online search market.
Yost claimed in his original complaint that Google touts its own products in the search results, and pointed to a study that says around 65% of searches on Google desktop and mobile ended without clicks to a different company.
Google said earlier last year that the study's methodology was flawed, partly because it didn't take into account that search users sometimes seek factual information -- such as currency conversions or weather forecasts -- as opposed to links to other companies.
Last August, Google urged Schuck to dismiss the complaint at an early stage, arguing that even if the company dominates search, as Yost alleged, that fact wouldn't prove the claims in his lawsuit.
“Ohio's request has no more validity under the law than a request to declare Fox News, the New York Times, or Walmart a 'public utility' because most people in a particular town prefer to get their news or groceries from them instead of someone else,” Google wrote.
The company also argued that regulating search results would violate the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from interfering in private companies' editorial decisions.
While Schuck is allowing Yost to proceed with the claim that Google is a “common carrier,” the judge dismissed the claim that the company is a “public utility.”
He added that even if Yost proves Google is a “common carrier,” it's not clear what impact that classification would have on the company.
“It is presently unknown what exactly the attendant duties on Google Search might be if it is declared to be a common carrier,” Schuck wrote.
But he also suggested that Google could be prohibited from preferencing its products in the search results, writing that the government may have a legitimate interest in “fostering competition.”
“There are several examples in which private companies involved in mass communications were prohibited from censorship,” he wrote. He cited several examples, including the defunct “fairness doctrine,” which required broadcasters to present different points of view on controversial topics.
A Google spokesperson said the company maintains that Yost's "common carrier claims are fundamentally flawed," and that the company "will continue our vigorous defense."
The spokesperson added that the lawsuit "would make Google Search results worse and make it harder for small businesses to connect directly with customers."