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Ohio sues Google, claims tech giant should be regulated as public utility

State Attorney General Dave Yost called the company's practices "discriminatory and anti-competitive."

The state of Ohio filed suit against Google on Tuesday, claiming the tech giant should be regulated as a public utility due to its "discriminatory and anti-competitive" practices.

The civil action, filed by Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost in Delaware County Common Pleas Court, does not seek monetary damages, but instead asks for Google to be declared a "common carrier" that could come under oversight from a body such as the state's Public Utilities Commission.

“Google uses its dominance of internet search to steer Ohioans to Google’s own products — that's discriminatory and anti-competitive,” Yost said in a prepared statement.

“When you own the railroad or the electric company or the cellphone tower, you have to treat everyone the same and give everybody access."

The Google Store in New York, on May 28, 2021.Victor J. Blue / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

In the civil complaint, Yost said he's concerned about Google's ability to create "no click searches," which means a query that directs users "to other Google platforms, such as YouTube, Google Flights, Google Maps, Google News, Google Shopping and Google Travel."

Google "has a duty not to artificially prioritize Google services and links higher than they would be displayed as a result of Google's internet searches algorithms in which the algorithm is not programmed to prioritize Google's owed products and services," the suit said.

A representative for Mountain View, California-based Google said the lawsuit will not succeed.

“Google Search is designed to provide people with the most relevant and helpful results," according to a company statement.

"AG Yost's lawsuit would make Google Search results worse and make it harder for small businesses to connect directly with customers. Ohioans simply don't want the government to run Google like a gas or electric company. This lawsuit has no basis in fact or law and we'll defend ourselves against it in court.”

MSNBC legal analyst Danny Cevallos said Ohio's end game isn't to put Google under the direct authority of a utilities commission, but to lay the groundwork for increased regulation.

He cited services such as cable TV, trash hauling, airlines and casinos that are provided by private companies, but are almost always subject to rules and regulations above and beyond other businesses.

"When a business serves such a substantial part of the public that its rates, charges and methods of operation become a public concern, it can be characterized as a public utility" and targeted for increased government oversight, Cevallos said.

However, unlike those other services, Google trades in information, which raises the bar for any government seeking to impose regulations, according to Boston University law professor Tiffany Li.

"It sounds like another attempt to limit the power of big tech without paying attention to the actual law. Google’s not a public utility any more than the Yellow Pages telephone book is," said Li, who specializes in technology platform governance.

"Google, as a company, has First Amendment rights to protection for its speech. Algorithmic ranking and sorting of search results can be considered Google’s speech. Attempting to limit that will run into constitutional law problems."