Google Maps probe by U.S. Justice Department picks up speed

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WASHINGTON — The US Department of Justice has revived an investigation by Google Maps to determine whether bundling the service with other Google software illegally stifles competition, according to two sources familiar with the case.

The Alphabet Inc unit probe first came to light in late 2020 and was silent until recent months when researchers began making inquiries again, the sources said.

Google said it is working with regulators and welcomes their inquiries. The Justice Department declined to comment.

The probe has two components.

Part focuses on apps, including navigation, that are offered via infotainment screens in vehicles. In its Google Automotive Services package for car manufacturers, the search company bundles Maps, the Google Play app store, Google Assistant and other services. For example, car companies shouldn’t mix Google Maps with voice assistants developed by smaller rivals, a source said.

In response, Google said the integration will provide the best user experience and in some cases a rival voice assistant may work with Google Maps.

The other part focuses on app and website developers. In particular, the department is looking at Google’s requirement that if a website or app uses one Google technology, for example Google’s location search, the website or app developer cannot use maps or other technologies developed by Google’s rivals, the two sources said.

A congressional antitrust panel concluded in a Big Tech staff report released in 2020 that Google “aggressively enforces this provision” and effectively forces developers “to choose whether to use all of Google’s mapping services or none of them.”

Google said its policies are aimed at preventing bad experiences, noting that mixing one Google Map with information on another map can lead to errors. The policy also stems from restrictions partners place on how Google can use their data, it said.

There are some exceptions to the policy, with Google adding that developers “are also free to use other map services besides Google Maps Platform — and many do.”

MONEY AND DATA ON THE GAME

Two developers told Reuters in the past year that they have received violations from Google in recent years after mixing data from the company’s services with maps from other providers. The developers said the competing options were cheaper or more detailed than Google Maps in some cases.

The developers, speaking on condition of anonymity over fears of retaliation from Google, have also expressed concerns about the company’s new privacy options for users of its Android mobile operating system, which could limit data collection by rival card providers.

It is about money and data, also about places and the interests of people. Google does not disclose the sale of the map-related tools separately. But Google has increased card costs over the years and linked the company to its Cloud unit, whose revenue growth is of great interest to investors.

In addition, the continued use of Google’s mapping services allows the company to collect more data to maintain its dominance over competing options.

Bundling products together is not always illegal, but antitrust enforcers have stepped in when such bundling does not benefit consumers.

In 1998, the government sued Microsoft for allegedly violating the antitrust law by linking its operating system monopoly to Internet Explorer in order to destroy rival browser Netscape.

According to one of the sources, there is no indication that the staff of the department investigating Google Maps has recommended that a lawsuit be filed.

Google is already fighting a lawsuit the department filed in 2020 accusing it of violating antitrust law to maintain its dominance of search and search advertising. It will go to court in 2023.

A lawsuit has long been expected against Google for its dominance in the online advertising industry. That probe is beyond the one in the map business, a source said.

The antitrust enforcement officer could be hindered from completing the long-running investigations because it was swamped by an unusually large number of merger assessments and merger-related lawsuits. A fusion trial is expected in April and two more in August.

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