Report: Google is resisting handing over documents in antitrust probes

Lawyers are cheaper than fines.


State investigators want emails, text messages, and documents from Google as part of a probe into alleged anticompetitive behavior, but The Wall Street Journal reports the search and advertising behemoth is doing what it can to avoid handing anything over. Google, meanwhile, claims it has supplied “over 100,000 pages of information.”

Google doesn’t want competitors getting a peek — according to a Google spokesperson, the company thinks the way the investigation is proceeding is “irregular” and it’s concerned the involvement of external business advisors could see its sensitive information leaked to rivals. Google is simultaneously facing lawsuits brought against it by Sonos and other smaller tech companies including Tile and PopSockets.

Investigators say emails aren’t enough — Investigators want more than just emails from high-level Google execs, they want instant messages and other materials from a range of Google employees. Google’s lawyers argue the scope of the information requested goes too far. Similarly, investigators want information from almost 100 Google employees, while Google has offered to hand over information from 11 of them.

Has Google gamed the online ad space? — The investigations center on whether Google has used anticompetitive means to turn itself into one of the largest and most profitable purveyors of digital advertisers on Earth. Spoiler alert: it almost certainly has. A recent indicator the company is nervous about what investigators might find is its disastrous attempt to make ads — which appear at the top of Google search result pages — look more obviously like ads and less like organic results. Instead, its efforts only gave credence to arguments that it tries to trick users into clicking ads thinking they’re legitimate results.

Only-show-in-town syndrome — The problem with the way Google displays ads is that users inevitably click on them more often than they scroll down the page and go directly to the site they’re after instead. That means Google can, among other things, report artificially inflated click-through rates and force smaller businesses to take advertisements simply to ensure they appear at the top of pages they should be appearing on organically anyway. Businesses, meanwhile, can’t exactly advertise anywhere else if they want to come up in search results.

It’s hard to blame Google for stalling and resisting. Doing so is a move straight out of the best-practice-when-you’re-being-investigated playbook. If its delaying tactics pay off or it can avoid submitting anything more than it needs to, it’s more likely to avoid being found guilty of anticompetitive behavior, and thus more likely to avoid a massive fine. The longer it can draw out proceedings the longer it postpones any fine, and any fine is all but guaranteed to be higher than whatever its lawyers cost. Even though that’s likely a fortune by anyone other than a multibillion-dollar conglomerate’s measure.