Move over, Europe. Tucked in near the end of the 130-page antitrust lawsuit Texas filed against Google last week are claims that could force the search giant to pay out trillions of dollars in damages, dwarfing previous levies against the company.
That would be a serious blow even to a company as large as Google, with its $1.16 trillion market cap. And it gives the states additional leverage to push for the company to agree to a breakup, perhaps in exchange for reduced fines.
The lawsuit, which also includes eight other states, accuses Google of rigging online ad auctions to increase its own profits at the expense of website publishers, who have struggled to make the same kind of money from web ads as from television, print and radio.
The states have asked the court to force the company to sell off pieces of its business to take away its power to control such auctions. But there are other allegations that could cut Google even more deeply.
Texas also alleges that Google violated state laws that forbid unfair or deceptive business practices — laws that mandate steep fines for each violation. The attorneys general plan to argue that every online bid allegedly manipulated by Google violates state laws, which would lead to a massive pileup of fines.
“The potential for the lawsuit is in the trillions of dollars,” said Joe Crews, who served in the Texas attorney general’s office in the 1990s and now has his own firm in Austin. “This is something they are going to have to pay attention to and they are going to have to commit resources to. Even if Google ultimately prevails it’s still going to cost them a whole ton of money.”
A Google spokesperson declined to comment on the potential fines, pointing to the company’s statement when the suit was filed calling it “meritless.”
The states have used these laws to force major companies to pay out large sums of money in the past. Last month, Apple agreed to pay $113 million to 34 states for slowing down the batteries in older iPhones. Credit reporting agency Equifax paid $175 million to the states as part of a settlement into its 2017 data breach.
In Europe, Google has already paid more than $9 billion in fines for violating competition rules. But those penalties are widely considered failures that didn’t result in any long-term changes to Google’s behavior. But the prospect of fines substantially in excess of Google’s $160 billion in annual revenue might have a bigger deterrent effect, individuals close to the case said.
Antitrust experts say the likelihood Google has to shell out trillions in cash is minimal, but state officials are likely to use the prospect as leverage in negotiations to force the search giant to accept a breakup.
“It’s a big number, but no one reasonably expects that to be a final number of what the damages will be,” said one individual close to the probe, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record.
Crews said, based on his experience, that the Texas attorney general designed the suit to give the states leverage over Google and ultimately change the company’s behavior.
Still as another lawyer close to the probe said of Google’s potential liability: “They are in a world of hurt.”