Google Settles Smaller Lawsuits as It Prepares for More Antitrust Fights

Google Settles Smaller Lawsuits as It Prepares for More Antitrust Fights

In December, Google spent $700 million to resolve states’ claims that its Play Store had strong-armed app makers into high fees and tough terms. About six weeks after that, Google paid $350 million to end a lawsuit accusing it of improperly sharing users’ private information.

On Monday morning, a Massachusetts company called Singular Computing said it had resolved its lawsuit with Google, involving claims that the tech giant had stolen its chip designs. Singular said in a news release that it had “entered into a settlement and patent license agreement with Google.”

Google is also on the verge of a fourth legal settlement in three months to end claims that it has misrepresented the privacy settings of its Chrome web browser.

In just a few months, Google has spent well over $1 billion to clear the decks for court fights that could prove far more damaging to the company and that could reshape the entire internet industry: two federal suits brought by the Department of Justice, targeting Google’s search engine and its advertising business.

The Justice Department accused Google of rigging the search market through preferential deals with phone makers like Apple and Samsung. The company will return to court in May for closing arguments in what is likely to be the biggest legal test for a tech company since U.S. v. Microsoft more than two decades ago.

In the other federal lawsuit, expected to go to trial in September, the Justice Department said that Google “corrupted legitimate competition in the ad tech industry” by taking control of the wide-swath of tools that advertisers and publishers depended on to buy and sell ads. Google has denied wrongdoing in both cases, saying that its search engine promotes online competition and its ad technology has provided a financial lifeline to publishers and other online businesses.

Google said in a statement that it was not clearing the decks for future litigation and had won dozens of cases in U.S. courts in the past year.

“When it makes sense, we settle cases to avoid prolonged, uncertain and costly litigation,” José Castañeda, a Google spokesman, said. “And when we need to defend ourselves and the industry, we do.”

The Justice Department could ask the court to prohibit Google’s preferential deals with browser makers, and it could argue that distribution platforms for its search engine, such as the Chrome browser or Android operating system, should be spun out of the company.

The department has already argued that Google should be forced to spin off its advertising technology unit, to loosen the ad industry’s dependence on the company. Any divestiture would be a costly and time-consuming process, chipping away at the company’s revenue and influence.

Most of the recent settlements also followed the company’s stunning loss to Epic Games, the maker of the hit game Fortnite, in a high-profile trial in December. Epic had claimed that Google undermined competition for app makers through high fees and stringent rules, and a San Francisco jury agreed. Google has started its appeal of the verdict, but a federal judge may order the company to accept more payment methods and app stores on Android’s mobile operating system.

Douglas Melamed, a visiting fellow at Stanford Law School, said that “in this time of quite dramatic change in regulatory and legal risk for all these big technology platforms,” Google may be thinking it’s time to resolve smaller cases “just so we don’t have it hanging over us.”

Google’s patent case with Singular revolved around some of the company’s most important chips — used to run artificial intelligence — called Tensor Processing Units. Singular had said that its founder, Joseph Bates, met with Google from 2010 to 2014 and discussed his chip designs. Years later, Google’s T.P.U.s infringed on two of Dr. Bates’s patents, Singular argued when it filed its suit in late 2019.

Singular has cited an email from Jeff Dean, Google’s chief scientist, in which he wrote that Singular’s designs were “really well suited” to Google’s chip initiatives. The parties agreed to settle the case in January.

Singular had sought $1.67 billion in damages. The companies declined to comment on the financial terms of their settlement. In its statement, Singular said Google agreed to a patent license. The tech giant did not admit to being at fault.

“As we showed in court, Singular’s patent doesn’t apply to our Tensor Processing Units, which were independently designed and built by Google engineers using Google technology over many years,” Mr. Castañeda, the Google spokesman, said.

Dr. Bates, Singular’s founder, said that the company’s goal was to give universities supercomputers, which he hopes “may help limit the concentration of power A.I. provides the big tech companies.”

In the $700 million settlement with attorneys general for all 50 states, Google agreed to allow app makers to offer their own billing systems and app stores on Android devices. But crucially, Google can continue charging large companies fees regardless of how consumers pay, though app makers get a discount for processing their own transactions. If the states’ claims had not been settled, they would have been heard during Epic’s trial.

In December, Google said it would settle a class-action case that alleged the settings of its private browsing tab in Chrome, called incognito mode, weren’t very private. The suit said that Google had misled users by continuing to track their online activity in incognito mode.

The case had already created negative headlines for Google, including the disclosure that its chief marketing officer, Lorraine Twohill, wrote to Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, complaining that incognito mode was difficult to market because it was “not truly private, thus requiring really fuzzy, hedging language that is almost more damaging.”

A California federal judge ordered Google to pay sanctions for missing discovery deadlines, making it cover some of the legal bills for the plaintiffs’ lawyers, led by the high-profile lawyer David Boies. Google said in a statement that it had “cooperated with exhaustive discovery.” A trial was scheduled to start in early February, and would have brought more disclosures about Google through evidence and testimony. The company said in December it would settle the case, and an official settlement is expected to land this month.

“We settled because we essentially got what we could have gotten if we went to trial and won,” Mr. Boies said in an interview.

In February, Google said it would pay $350 million to settle a shareholder lawsuit about a privacy breach at its defunct social media site, Google+. The service had inadvertently given developers access to users’ information from 2015 to 2018, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2018, and Google was accused of concealing the issue from users and regulators even after it fixed the problem.

The company had settled with Google+ users for $7.5 million in 2020, but the shareholder lawsuit persisted. Google had tried multiple times to get the case thrown out, including in 2022 when it unsuccessfully asked the Supreme Court to intervene. In the end, the only way to make the case go away was forging a deal.

It’s possible in several of these cases that Google would have had to pay more money in damages than it settled for if they had remained in court, Mr. Melamed and other legal experts said.

“The problem with litigation is whenever you walk into court, there’s an 80 percent chance that anything can happen, including you can get arrested,” Mr. Melamed said, recounting the words of a friend. “It’s just so unpredictable.”

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Kyle C. Garrison

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