Google Maps exclusive US probe picks up speed sources

The Google Maps app logo is seen on a smartphone in this photo illustration
FILE PHOTO: The Google Maps app logo is seen on a smartphone in this photo taken on September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

March 30, 2022

By Diane Bartz and Paresh Dave

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The US Department of Justice has breathed new life into an investigation into Google Maps to determine whether bundling the service with other Google software illegally suppresses competition, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

The investigation into the Alphabet Inc. unit first came to light in late 2020 and was quiet until recent months, when investigators began investigating again, the sources said.

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

The probe consists of two components.

One part focuses on apps, including for navigation, which are provided 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. Car companies, for example, will be prevented from mixing Google Maps with voice assistants developed by smaller competitors, a source said.

In response, Google said the integration offers the best user experience and that in some cases a competing voice assistant can work with Google Maps.

The other component focuses on app and website developers. In particular, the department is reviewing Google’s requirement that if a website or app uses a Google technology, such as Google’s location search, the website or app developer must not use maps or other technologies developed by Google’s competitors, according to the both sources.

A congressional antitrust panel concluded in a 2020 Big Tech employee report that Google is “aggressively enforcing this provision,” effectively forcing developers to “choose whether they will use all of Google’s map services or none of them.”

Google said its policies aim to prevent bad experiences, noting that mixing a Google map with information on another map could introduce errors. The guidelines also stem from restrictions that partners place on Google’s use of their data, it said.

The guidelines have some exceptions, and Google added that developers “can use other mapping services alongside the Google Maps platform — and many do.”


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

The developers, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from Google, also expressed concern about the company’s new privacy options for users of its Android mobile operating system, which could limit data collection by competing map providers.

At stake are money and data, as well as people’s places and interests. Google does not separately disclose revenue from the licensing of the map-related tools. But Google has increased mapping fees over the years and tied the business to its cloud unit, whose revenue growth is of great interest to investors.

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

Bundling of products is not always illegal, but antitrust authorities step in when such bundling does not benefit consumers.

In 1998, the government sued Microsoft Corp for allegedly violating antitrust laws by tying its operating system monopoly to Internet Explorer to crush rival browser Netscape.

There is no evidence that staff at the department investigating Google Maps have recommended a lawsuit, one of the sources said.

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

A lawsuit against Google over its dominance of the online advertising business has long been expected. That investigation is more advanced than that into the cards business, a source said.

The antitrust agency could be prevented from completing the long-running investigations as it has been inundated with an unusually large number of merger reviews and merger-related court cases. A merger process is expected in April and two more are expected in August.

(Reporting by Diane Bartz in Washington and Paresh Dave in Oakland, California; Editing by Chris Sanders and Matthew Lewis) Google Maps exclusive US probe picks up speed sources


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