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Justice Dept. to Brief States on Google Antitrust Inquiry

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Wednesday plans to brief officials from state attorneys general offices on its antitrust action against Google, in what is expected to be one of the final steps before filing a landmark case against the tech giant.

The department will outline a potential lawsuit against Google in a call with state attorneys general, according to four people with knowledge of the plan who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the deliberations are private. The suit could come within days, they said.

The case is expected to focus on the company’s search business, and whether the company used its dominant search position to block rivals and harm consumers, according to some of the people. The suit may also accuse the company of anticompetitive practices in the ad tech market, but that part of the investigation hasn’t been as fully developed as the case on search, the people said.

An agency spokeswoman declined to comment. A press officer for Google didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

A case against Google would be the first major action against a technology giant in decades and fulfill President Trump’s pledge to target the titans of Silicon Valley with antitrust action. Attorney General William P. Barr has pushed the agency to move quickly in the investigation and had pledged to announce a decision on his case before the end of summer. The race to finish the investigation and prepare a lawsuit has roiled career lawyers at the agency, who have complained of pressure to complete an investigation some feared was spurred by election season motivations.

While the federal government could sue Google on its own, having states sign on gives a lawsuit more heft and makes it less likely that different prosecutors will produce competing cases.

The Washington Post earlier reported on the plans for the Wednesday meeting.

Officials at the Justice Department are confronting a divide among state investigators as they look to get attorneys general on board. Some states have pushed to pursue a narrow complaint that can be brought quickly. Another group, led by Colorado’s attorney general, Phil Weiser, a Democrat, has said that states should take more time to create a broad complaint.

Over its 15-month investigation, the Justice Department has branched into multiple lines of inquiry. The agency has conducted interviews with hundreds of companies that have complained that Google harms competition by showcasing its search engine and browser in phones running Android, Google’s mobile operating system. Its investigation into Google’s control over the online advertising supply chain has produced thousands of pages of internal documents and interviews with media, advertising and tech companies.

But some state attorneys general say the Justice Department’s imminent lawsuit feels premature. The state investigations are still open.

The investigations into Google are part of a larger backlash against the market power of tech giants, including Facebook, Apple and Amazon. With Google, all four are the subject of an investigation by the House Judiciary Committee, which may produce a report as soon as this month. The Justice Department has also been investigating Apple, while the Federal Trade Commission pursues possible cases against Facebook and Amazon.

Republican attorneys general were also invited to a meeting on Wednesday at the White House focused on President Trump’s push to hold tech platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter responsible for harmful content on their sites and for bias against conservative voices, according to people familiar with the meeting.

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