Ohio’s attorney general, Dave Yost, filed a lawsuit on Tuesday in pursuit of a novel effort to have Google declared a public utility and subject to government regulation.
The lawsuit, which was filed in a Delaware County, Ohio court, seeks to use a law that’s over a century old to regulate Google by applying a legal designation historically used for railroads, electricity and the telephone to the search engine.
“When you own the railroad or the electric company or the cellphone tower, you have to treat everyone the same and give everybody access,” Mr. Yost, a Republican, said in a statement. He added that Ohio was the first state to bring such a lawsuit against Google.
If Google were declared a so-called common carrier like a utility company, it would prevent the company from prioritizing its own products, services and websites in search results.
Google said it had none of the attributes of a common carrier that usually provide a standardized service for a fee using public assets, such as rights of way.
The “lawsuit would make Google Search results worse and make it harder for small businesses to connect directly with customers,” José Castañeda, a Google spokesman, said in a statement. “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.”
Though the Ohio lawsuit is a stretch, there is a long history of government control of certain kinds of companies, said Andrew Schwartzman, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. “Think of ‘The Canterbury Tales.’ Travelers needed a place to stay and eat on long road treks, and innkeepers were not allowed to deny them accommodations or rip them off,” he said.
After a series of federal lawsuits filed against Google last year, Ohio’s lawsuit is part of a next wave of state actions aimed at regulating and curtailing the power of Big Tech. Also on Tuesday, Colorado’s legislature passed a data privacy law that would allow consumers to opt out of data collection.
On Monday, New York’s Senate passed antitrust legislation that would make it easier for plaintiffs to sue dominant platforms for abuse of power. After years of inaction in Congress with tech legislation, states are beginning to fill the regulatory vacuum.
Ohio was also one of 38 states that filed an antitrust lawsuit in December accusing Google of being a monopoly and using its dominant position in internet search to squeeze out smaller rivals.