States eyeing 3rd antitrust suit against Google as they weigh app store complaints

Leah Nylen

Dozens of state attorneys general are considering filing a third antitrust complaint against Google early next year, two people close to the probe said Monday — this time over its app store.

Two coalitions of states filed antitrust complaints against Google last week: one led by Texas, focused on the tech giant’s control over the advertising technology market, and a second, led by Colorado and Nebraska, aimed at its power in online search. The second group is still investigating complaints related to Google’s control over its Android Play Store and could file a suit as soon as January, the people said.

The multistate group focused on Google search had considered including the Play Store claims in that suit but opted against it for fear of complicating the search case, the people said, speaking anonymously to discuss an ongoing investigation.

The states leading the effort include Utah, New York, Tennessee and North Carolina, a group of two Republican and two Democrats.

Bloomberg first reported the news of a potential Play Store suit on Friday.

Google’s control over its Play Store has drawn some criticism and private antitrust lawsuits, most prominently one filed by Fortnite-maker Epic Games, which is based in North Carolina. Google’s Play Store comes pre-installed on nearly all Android devices, but the company allows users to download additional app stores, such as those offered by Amazon or Samsung. Users of most devices can also directly install apps downloaded from the internet, commonly called “sideloading.”

Sameer Samat, Google’s vice president of Android and Google Play, said most Android devices have two app stores pre-installed and users can easily add others.

“Each store is able to decide its own business model and consumer features,” Samat said in a statement. “This openness means that even if a developer and Google do not agree on business terms the developer can still distribute on the Android platform.”

Because of the alternatives, Google’s handling of its Play Store is often viewed as less problematic for antitrust purposes than Apple’s ironclad control of its App Store, the only allowed avenue for iPhone and iPad users to acquire and install apps.

In August, Epic filed twin antitrust lawsuits against Apple and Google over their app store restrictions. Other developers and consumers have likewise filed suit. Those cases remain ongoing in California federal court.

Both Apple and Google charge a 30 percent commission for any app downloads or purchases made within apps, a fee developers say is too high. In the past, Google has been lax in requiring developers to abide by its policy on in-app purchases, but in September, the company said it would begin more vigorously enforcing its rules in 2021.