Google considered buying Epic to 'squelch' competition, court docs reveal

A new legal filing in Epic's app store fight reveals a shocking allegation about Google's strategy.

An image still of Epic Games' Nineteen Eighty-Fortnite video.

Epic says Google contemplated purchasing some or all of the company to deal with 'contagion' of Play Store competition.

Image: Epic Games

Google considered purchasing a part of or all of Fortnite maker Epic Games as part of a strategy to combat competitive pressure on Android's Google Play app marketplace, according to claims from Epic made in unsealed court filings made public on Thursday. News of the court filings was first reported earlier today by the Verge.

The documents in question are part of Epic's legal complaint against Google. Google only yesterday removed some of its prior redactions on the complaint and in turn revealed more of the alleged complaints between the two companies. Epic is currently suing the Android maker for alleged antitrust violations, as well as Apple over similar alleged antitrust violations, after both companies removed Fortnite from their respective app stores last year for bypassing restrictions on payment processing and both stores' 30% commission. The Apple case went to trial in May and is awaiting a verdict from the judge, while the Google case has yet to go to trial.

In the complaint, Epic claims, "Google has gone so far as to share its monopoly profits with business partners to secure their agreement to fence out competition, has developed a series of internal projects to address the 'contagion' it perceived from efforts by Epic and others to offer consumers and developers competitive alternatives, and has even contemplated buying some or all of Epic to squelch this threat." Epic cites an internal Google document discussing the plans, but most of the pertinent details are still sealed so not even Epic or its legal appears to be fully aware of concrete specifics.

It's not clear when Google contemplated acquiring Epic or how serious such plans were. Epic CEO Tim Sweeney wrote on Twitter that such a plan was "unbeknownst to us at the time," saying Epic only found out about it just now when the court documents in question were unsealed. "Whether this would have been a negotiation to buy Epic or some sort of hostile takeover attempt is unclear," Sweeney wrote. Later on, in response to another tweet, Sweeney said, "I'm just as curious about those documents as you are. Because of the protective order, I don't know what's in the files designated highly confidential, except for the excerpts Google just released."

Epic notably decided in 2018 to distribute Fortnite outside the Google Play store on Android, using its own launcher that had to be downloaded from the mobile web on an Android device. Later on, after Epic determined it was no longer viable to continue distributing Fortnite via sideloading, it relaunched Fortnite on Android through Google's store, though it was openly critical of Google at the time for the restrictions the company places on third-party app stores and sideloading. Epic would later cite this scenario as part of its antitrust claims against Google, saying the company makes it difficult to compete with the Play Store despite Android's open nature when compared to Apple's more restrictive iOS platform.

Other parts of the court documents point to conversations between Epic and Google regarding a "special deal" for Fortnite to bring it to the Play Store. As part of the negotiation, Epic claims Google representatives admitted to the "abysmal" experience of sideloading apps on Android as one reason why Fortnite should be distributed through the Play Store. "Google understands that the myriad barriers it erects to direct downloading have the effect of protecting its app distribution monopoly and limiting developers' ability to distribute their apps," Epic writes in its complaint.

Google has denied Epic's claims of antitrust violations. "The open Android ecosystem lets developers distribute apps through multiple app stores. For game developers who choose to use the Play Store, we have consistent policies that are fair to developers and keep the store safe for users," the company wrote in Epic's filing. "While Fortnite remains available on Android, we can no longer make it available on Play because it violates our policies. We will continue to defend ourselves against these meritless claims."

In a statement, Google said Epic's complaint mischaracterizes its internal discussions. "Epic's lawsuit is baseless and mischaracterizes our business conversations. Android provides more choices in mobile devices for developers and consumers," a company spokesperson told Protocol.

Update August 7, 3:37PM ET: Added statement from Google.

Protocol | Policy

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Photo: Caspar Camille Rubin/Unsplash

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But the case Twitch is bringing against these hate raiders is hardly black and white. For starters, the plaintiff here isn't an aggrieved user suing another user for defamation on the platform. The plaintiff is the platform itself. Complicating matters more is the fact that, according to a spokesperson, at least part of Twitch's goal in the case is to "shed light on the identity of the individuals behind these attacks," raising complicated questions about when tech companies should be able to use the courts to unmask their own anonymous users and, just as critically, when they should be able to actually sue them for violating their speech policies.

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