In a welcome sign to the vast majority of treatment programs that rely on Google Ad Words and its search engine for patient lead identification, the Wall Street Journal (paid subscription) is reporting that the Justice Department will file an antitrust lawsuit today, October 20, 2020, alleging that Google engaged in anticompetitive conduct to preserve monopolies in search and search-advertising that form the cornerstones of its vast conglomerate, according to senior Justice officials. According to the WSJ, Google owns or controls search distribution channels accounting for about 80% of search queries in the U.S., the officials said. That means Google’s competitors can’t get a meaningful number of search queries and build a scale needed to compete, leaving consumers with less choice and less innovation, and advertisers with less competitive prices, the lawsuit will allege.
More than 10 state attorneys general are expected to also join the Justice Department’s case, officials said. Other states are still considering their own cases related to Google’s search practices, and a large group of states is considering a case challenging Google’s power in the digital advertising market, The Wall Street Journal has reported. In the ad-technology market, Google owns industry-leading tools at every link in the complex chain between online publishers and advertisers. The Justice Department also continues to investigate Google’s ad-tech practices.
In the SUD treatment space, Google has been under tremendous pressure to rein in the runaway advertising costs of Ad Words specific to addiction treatment, and to filter through those who would use Google advertising for nefarious reasons. A Palm Beach County, FL, Grand Jury Report issued December 8, 2016 though State Attorney Dave Aronberg, entitled “Report on the Proliferation of Fraud and Abuse in Florida’s Addiction Treatment Industry,” identified how the unregulated marketing space has caused intentionally deceptive advertising, including the stealing of brand names to confuse patients as to the actual treatment program they would be attending.
With the DOJ and local state attorneys general breathing down the neck of Google to make some changes, the company quickly contracted with Legitscript to create an “Addiction Treatment Certification,” in an effort to weed out bad actors. Only those who obtain the certification (which is a very low bar to begin with) could then be eligible again to bid on Google Ad Words. The public, however, continues to be led to believe that Legitscript certification is the equivalent of a “Seal of Good Housekeeping” by treatment programs, which is most certainly is not.
As for this new lawsuit, the outcome could have a considerable impact on the direction of U.S. antitrust law. The Sherman Act that prohibits restraints of trade and attempted monopolization is broadly worded, leaving courts wide latitude to interpret its parameters. Because litigated antitrust cases are rare, any one ruling could affect governing precedent for future cases.
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