Ohio’s attorney general wants Google to be declared a public utility

Published on

Ohio has filed a lawsuit against Google, requesting that the company be legally declared a public utility and common carrier under state law. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said in an announcement about the lawsuit that the company “uses its dominance of Internet search to steer Ohioans to Google’s own products — that’s discriminatory and anti-competitive.”

Get The Full Ray Dalio Series in PDF

Get the entire 10-part series on Ray Dalio in PDF. Save it to your desktop, read it on your tablet, or email to your colleagues

Q1 2021 hedge fund letters, conferences and more

Details on the lawsuit against Google

According to Ars Technica, the lawsuit doesn't seek monetary damages, although it would require Google to take some steps to stop discriminating against competitors. Yost said the search giant "has a duty to carry content from other sources without unfair discrimination as compared to comparable Google content."

The lawsuit also seeks a permanent injunction barring the company from prioritizing the placement of its own products, websites and services on the Results Pages from Google searches in Ohio "without providing equal opportunities for prioritization to non-Google entities." Yost said the state is the first in the county to file such a lawsuit.

Clarence Thomas on digital platforms as utilities

Ars Technica reports that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas influenced the lawsuit in his recent concurring opinion. He argued that Twitter and other tech giants could face restrictions involving the First Amendment even though they aren't government agencies. Thomas also said free speech law shouldn't keep lawmakers from regulating such platforms as common carriers.

He wrote that online platforms that "hold themselves out to the public resemble traditional common carriers." Thomas added that even though they are digital rather than physical networks, "they are at bottom communications networks, and that 'carry' information from one user to another."

He also sad digital platforms lay infrastructure that can be controlled in a manner similar to how a traditional telephone company laid physical wires.

Google disagrees

Yost argued that Ohio residents "are harmed by Google because they cannot make the best choices if they don't get all the information." He also offered an example, noting that Google steers people toward Google Flights, which means they don't see offers from competitors like Travelocity or Orbitz.

His request for Google to stop prioritizing its own products, websites and services on search pages would "extend to advertisements, enhancements, knowledge boxes, integrated specialized searches, direct answers and other features."

In a statement, the search giant said its Search offering "is designed to provide people with the most relevant and helpful results." Google added that Yost's lawsuit "would make Google Search results worse and make it harder for small businesses to connect directly with customers."

The company also said that Ohioans "simply don't want the government to run Google like a gas or electric company" and that the lawsuit "has no basis in fact or law." Google argued that it doesn't have any of the attributions of public utilities like electric companies, phone companies and railroads, which provide "a standardized delivery service for a fee using public assets like rights-of-way."