Antitrust suit brought by states claims Google and Facebook had a secret deal

Photo (cc) by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

There’s been a significant new development in the antitrust cases being brought against Google and Facebook.

On Friday, Richard Nieva reported in BuzzFeed News that a lawsuit filed in December 2020 by Texas and several other states claims that Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg “personally signed off on a secret advertising deal that allegedly gave Facebook special privileges on Google’s ad platform.” That information was recently unredacted.

Nieva writes:

The revelation comes as both Google and Facebook face a crackdown from state and federal officials over antitrust concerns for their business practices. Earlier this week, a judge rejected Facebook’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission that accuses the social network of using anticompetitive tactics.

The action being led by Texas is separate from an antitrust suit brought against Google and Facebook by more than 200 newspapers around the country. The suit essentially claims that Google has monopolized the digital ad marketplace in violation of antitrust law and has cut Facebook in on the deal in order to stave off competition. Writing in Business Insider, Martin Coulter puts it this way:

Most of the allegations in the suit hinge on Google’s fear of “header bidding,” an alternative to its own ad auctioning practices described as an “existential threat” to the company.

As I’ve written previously, the antitrust actions are potentially more interesting than the usual complaint made by newspapers — that Google and Facebook have repurposed their journalism and should pay for it. That’s never struck me as an especially strong legal argument, although it’s starting to happen in Australia and Western Europe.

The antitrust claims, on the other hand, are pretty straightforward. You can’t control all aspects of a market, and you can’t give special treatment to a would-be competitor. Google and Facebook, of course, have denied any wrongdoing, and that needs to be taken seriously. But keep an eye on this. It could shake the relationship between the platforms and the publishers to the very core.