US speeds up probe into Google Maps

According to two persons familiar with the situation, the US Justice Department has revived an inquiry into Google Maps to see if bundling the service with other Google software illegally stifles competition.

The investigation of the Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O) company began in late 2020 and was quiet until recently, when investigators resumed their questions, according to the sources.

Google stated that it works closely with regulators and welcomes their inquiries. The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The probe is made up of two parts.

One section focuses on apps, such as navigation, that are available through vehicle infotainment screens. The search company’s Google Automotive Features package for manufacturers includes Maps, the Google Play app store, Google Assistant, and other services. According to one source, car firms are prohibited from combining Google Maps with voice assistants made by smaller competitors.

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

Developers of apps and websites are the focus of the other component. According to the two individuals, the department is looking into Google’s stipulation that if a website or app employs one of Google’s services, such as location search, the developer cannot use maps or other technologies developed by Google’s competitors.

In a Big Tech staff report released in 2020, a congressional antitrust panel decided that Google “enforces this clause vigorously” and effectively forces developers “to pick whether they would use all of Google’s mapping services or none at all.”

Google stated that its regulations are in place to prevent negative experiences, stressing that combining information from one Google Map with information from another map could result in inaccuracies. The policies are also a result of limitations imposed by partners on how Google can use their data, according to the company.

Developers “are also free to use alternative mapping services in addition to Google Maps Platform – and many do,” Google said, adding that the policies include some exceptions.

Over the last year, two developers have told media that they have received violation letters from Google after combining data from the company’s services with maps from other sources. In certain cases, the developers claimed, competing choices were less priced or more thorough than Google Maps.

The developers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of punishment from Google, are also concerned about the company’s new privacy options for Android users, which might limit data collecting by competing mapping providers.

Money and data, including information about whereabouts and people’s interests, are on the line. Google does not break out sales from map-related tool licencing separately. However, Google has increased mapping costs over time and tied the business to its Cloud subsidiary, whose sales growth is of particular interest to investors.

Furthermore, continued use of Google’s mapping services allows the business to acquire more data in order to maintain its lead over competitors.

Although bundling products isn’t necessarily prohibited, antitrust regulators have intervened when it doesn’t benefit consumers.

Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O) was sued by the government in 1998 for allegedly breaking antitrust laws by attaching its operating system monopoly to Internet Explorer in order to kill rival browser Netscape.

According to one of the individuals, there is no indication that the department’s personnel studying Google Maps has made a recommendation on whether or not to sue.

Google is already facing a lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice in 2020, alleging it of breaking antitrust rules in order to maintain its search and search advertising dominance. It will be tried in 2023.

A lawsuit against Google for its monopoly in the online advertising industry has been expected for a long time. According to one insider, the investigation into the mapping business is further advanced.

Because of an exceptionally large number of merger reviews and merger-related cases, the antitrust enforcer may be handicapped in concluding the long-running investigations. In April, a merger trial is planned, followed by two more in August.

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