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Oregon, California Join 34 Other States To Sue Google

A coalition of more than 30 states on Wednesday sued Google for allegedly abusing its power it has over developers through its Google Play store on Google devices, like Androids.
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A coalition of more than 30 states on Wednesday sued Google for allegedly abusing its power it has over developers through its Google Play store on Google devices, like Androids.

It's the latest government challenge over how Big Tech controls app stores. Officials say Google acts like a monopoly by abusing the power it has over how people pay for apps on Google devices.

More than 30 states accused Google of operating like an illegal monopoly by abusing the power it has over developers and eliminating competition in how people download and pay for apps on their Google devices.

"Google uses anticompetitive barriers and mandates to protect its monopoly power," the attorneys general wrote in the suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on Wednesday.

The suit was brought by 36 states — including New York, California, Oregon, Tennessee, and North Carolina and Utah — and the District of Columbia.

“Over time, Google’s anti-competitive behavior has gotten worse,” said Oregon Attorney General Rosenblum in a press release. “There is no doubt that how we interact with our smartphones is ingrained in every aspect of our lives. It impacts our well-being, our children’s education, our everyday lives. Today’s filing is about ensuring one of the biggest tech powers behind our screens plays by the rules.”

This is the latest government assault against the immense power wielded by Google amid a tsunami of legal and regulatory challenges stacking up for Big Tech in recent months. Since last year, prosecutors in both the Justice Department and on the state level have filed four other suits against the company over other parts of its business.

App store commissions — typically 30% — are charged to developers, who then usually pass the cost off to consumers who are buying apps or making purchases in things like mobile games.

The states' complaint zeroes in on Google's use of those fees, alleging that Google's anticompetitive policies have deprived profits from developers and raised prices on consumers.

"To collect and maintain this extravagant commission, Google has employed anticompetitive tactics to diminish and disincentivize competition in Android app distribution," the suit states. "Google has not only targeted potentially competing app stores, but also has ensured that app developers themselves have no reasonable choice but to distribute their apps through the Google Play Store."

One difference between how Apple and Google operate its devices has to do with what is known as "sideloading," the ability to download apps on a browser, instead of through an app store. Citing security concerns, Apple bans this practice, whereas Google allows it. Google additionally permits third-party app stores to be downloaded on its devices, which Apple does not permit.

However, in its lawsuit, lawyers for the states point out that Google Play's market share of apps downloaded on Google devices is more than 90%, which suggests, according to suit, that Google "faces no credible threats."

Furthermore, Google prohibits competing app stores to be downloaded through its Google Play store, but rival app stores can be sideloaded onto Google devices, a process the state lawyers describe as being "unnecessarily cumbersome and impractical."

The complaint goes on to state that: "Google's conduct has deterred new entry and/or prevented would-be competitors from achieving the scale that might constrain Google's power."

Google did not respond to a request for comment.

The Coalition for App Fairness, an advocacy group opposed to Big Tech companies having sole control over how in-app payments are processed, said in a statement that the states' action is encouraging.

"App stores have been given a free pass to abuse their dominant market position for far too long," said the coalition's executive director, Meghan DiMuzio. "Their anti-competitive policies stifle innovation, inhibit consumer freedom, inflate costs, and limit transparent communication between developers and their customers."

Fortnite maker Epic Games brought Apple to trial this year over how it operates its app store. The federal judge has yet to issue a verdict. Epic has also sued Google in a similar case, and it is awaiting trial.

Editor's note: Google is among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.