Feds may target Google’s Chrome browser for breakup

Justice Department and state prosecutors investigating Google for alleged antitrust violations are considering whether to force the company to sell its dominant Chrome browser and parts of its lucrative advertising business, three people with knowledge of the discussions said Friday.

The conversations — amid preparations for an antitrust legal battle that DOJ is expected to begin in the coming weeks — could pave the way for the first court-ordered break-up of a U.S. company in decades. The forced sales would also represent major setbacks for Google, which uses its control of the world’s most popular web browser to aid the search engine that is the key to its fortunes.

Discussions about how to resolve Google’s control over the $162.3 billion global market for digital advertising remain ongoing, and no final decisions have been made, the people cautioned, speaking anonymously to discuss confidential discussions. But prosecutors have asked advertising technology experts, industry rivals and media publishers for potential steps to weaken Google’s grip.

DOJ is separately preparing an antitrust suit accusing Google of abusing its control on the online search market, which the department could file as soon as next week. Targets of that complaint are expected to include the ways Google uses its Android mobile operating system to help entrench its search engine, POLITICO reported last week.

Spokespeople for Google and the Justice Department declined to comment Friday.

The expected litigation comes as Google and fellow tech industry heavyweights Facebook, Amazon and Apple are facing growing scrutiny from both Republicans and Democrats in Washington for issues such as their squashing of competitors, treatment of users’ private data and handling of disinformation in the presidential race.

One major question facing the prosecutors in both suits: What fixes should they seek to curb Google’s power?

In the advertising investigation, DOJ and state attorneys general have asked rivals and other third parties for their views on which businesses Google should have to sell. They have also asked whether any existing competitors should be off-limits as potential buyers, the people said.

The lawyers have also asked whether any of Google’s properties outside of the advertising technology market should be targeted for potential sale — leading some to single out Google’s Chrome browser, they said.

The browser, which Google introduced in 2008 and has the largest market share in the U.S., has been at the center of rivals’ accusations that the search giant uses its access to users’ web histories to aid its advertising business.

That criticism escalated in January, when Google said it would phase out the use of third-party cookies in its Chrome browser within two years to enhance consumer privacy. But cookies — small files a browser uses to track visits to websites — are also a key tool for publishers to demonstrate the effectiveness of advertising campaigns to ad buyers.

Google’s own estimates show that eliminating those cookies will reduce advertising revenue to news outlets that show online ads by as much as 62 percent.

While other browsers such as Apple’s Safari and the Mozilla Foundation’s Firefox already block cookies, the move by Google’s Chrome is likely to have broader reach as it’s used by nearly 60 percent of desktop computers and 37 percent of mobile devices in the U.S., according to analytics firm StatCounter.

A major antitrust report that the House Judiciary Committee released this week found that Chrome’s market share allows Google to “effectively set standards for the industry,” an issue of particular relevance as Chrome phases out cookies.

“Google’s ad-based business model can prompt questions about whether the standards Google chooses to introduce are ultimately designed primarily to serve Google’s interests,” the House report said. “Market participants are concerned that while Google phases out third-party cookies needed by other digital advertising companies, Google can still rely on data collected throughout its ecosystem.”

Google has said it is working with the advertising industry and others to develop alternatives to cookies. For example, the search giant has proposed a new system, nicknamed Turtledove, in which advertising auctions would take place within the browser instead of sending data to outside servers. Google argues this would better protect user privacy because a person’s data never leaves her computer or phone. Advertising industry representatives, though, are wary of giving over that much control without oversight to browsers — and, in effect, Google.

Short of demanding that Google sell the browser, prosecutors could also consider asking a court to limit how Google uses the data derived from Chrome to aid its other products, one of the individuals and a fourth person involved in the ad technology market said.

Google’s control over the technology that underlies advertising across the open web traces back to the search giant’s 2007 purchase of DoubleClick, a company that helped websites and advertisers serve online ads. The Federal Trade Commission reviewed the acquisition at the time and voted, 4-1, to let it move forward, despite concerns that the deal would enable Google to strong-arm website publishers into using its other advertising services.

At least one of the commissioners who voted in favor of the deal, William Kovacic, a Republican, told the New York Times he would have supported challenging the merger if he knew then what he knows now.

Since the DoubleClick buy, Google has also scooped up other ad tech properties including Admob, a mobile advertising company; ad auctioneer Invite Media; and AdMeld, a platform for ad buyers. Those deals helped Google create a suite of technologies that cover every stage of the process for both buying and selling online display ads.

Requiring Google to either unwind some of those acquisitions or sell off its business on either the buyer or seller side of the market are among the possibilities being discussed, the people involved in the conversations said.