The Ohio Attorney General’s office filed a lawsuit to name Google a public utility. Google disagrees and plans to fight the suit.
Big tech companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google and more are often in the headlines for one reason or another. Lawsuits have become more common against these companies, some of which are under fire for alleged antitrust violations. Ohio, however, has filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against Google. Ohio Attorney General, Dave Yost, filed the suit earlier this month in an effort to have Google declared a public utility. This declaration would subject the company to government regulations that apply to other public utility companies like electric and railroads.
Yost claims that Google prioritizes its own content above other companies within its search engine, something the AG says harms Ohio users who “cannot make the best choices if they don’t get all of the information. For example, if someone searches for a flight and Google returns its own presentation of search results to steer the person to Google Flights, the person doesn’t see offers from competitors such as Orbitz and Travelocity.”
Yost said in a statement, “Google uses its dominance of internet search to steer Ohioans to Google’s own products–that’s discriminatory and anti-competitive. When you own the railroad or the electric company or the cellphone tower, you have to treat everyone the same and give everybody access.”
Google argues that it has none of the attributes of a public utility that provides a service for a fee using public assets. A spokesperson for Google, Jose Castaneda, said, “[The] lawsuit would make Google Search results worse and make it harder for small businesses to connect directly with customers. Ohioans simply don’t want the government to run Google like a gas or electric company. This lawsuit has no basis in fact or law and we’ll defend ourselves against it in court.”
The lawsuit is a stretch, despite the modicum of truth behind Yost’s statement. Yes, Google prioritizes its own services, why wouldn’t they? That’s called good business. Even the electric company does that. You can have your electricity supplied by any company, but your electric company will default to its own supplier. This is akin to someone doing a Google search for a flight and seeing options from Google first. No matter where the service is coming from, users have to know they have the right to use other providers. The difference is that Google actually tells you that and will still show you other providers as you scroll down the list. Your electric company, though, does not offer a list of suppliers you can view.
While there’s no guarantee how the court will view this lawsuit, it’s unlikely to get very far. Ohio is the first to file this suit, but that doesn’t mean other states won’t follow. It’s actually part of the next wave actions by states which want to regulate and curtail the power of Big Tech. Colorado recently passed legislation allowing consumers to opt-out of data collection altogether in an effort to give consumers more control over data privacy.
Still, we would be remiss if we did not admit that Google, along with many other backbone and key service providers of the internet, is essentially a public utility. The reason is this: If Google shut down, users wouldn’t be able to access the internet because it is the way to the internet. Think about it. There’s so much information on the internet, without Google and other search engines, we would never be able to find exactly what we need. Google helps direct the supply and flow of information, similar to an electric company directing the supply and energy flow to its customers. But Google does it for free, prioritizing the common need over an additional revenue stream. There is absolutely a fee for your electricity.
So, if Ohio wins and Google is named a public utility, does that mean it will start charging Ohioans a service fee? Maybe. If Google is required to make significant changes that cost a good chunk of money, they’re likely to pass that expense onto its users so that profit margins remain stable. Speculation, of course, but possible.
If we didn’t have services like Google to help us navigate the wild internet, most of which is not even known, we would not be able to easily access the information we seek. We search for everything from medical advice to parenting advice to product advice. We want the best of the best, and we know we can find it using a search. Without the ability to search, without search services, the internet stops being useful. Don’t believe that? Google Usenet, search wasn’t always a given.