In its first monopoly trial of modern internet era, US sets sights on Google
By David McCabe and Cecilia Kang
The Justice Department has spent three years over two presidential administrations building the case that Google illegally abused its power over online search to throttle competition. To defend itself, Google has enlisted hundreds of employees and three powerful law firms and spent millions of dollars on legal fees and lobbyists.
On Tuesday, a judge in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia began considering their arguments at a trial that cuts to the heart of a long-simmering question: Did today’s tech giants become dominant by breaking the law?
The case — U.S. et al v. Google — is the federal government’s first monopoly trial of the modern internet era, as a generation of tech companies has come to wield immense influence over commerce, information, public discourse, entertainment and labor. The trial moves the antitrust battle against those companies to a new phase, shifting from challenging their mergers and acquisitions to more deeply examining the businesses that thrust them into power.
Such a consequential case over tech power has not unfolded since the Justice Department took Microsoft to court in 1998 for antitrust violations. But since then, companies like Google, Apple, Amazon and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, have woven themselves into people’s lives to an even greater degree. Any ruling from the trial could have broad ripple effects, slowing down or potentially dismantling the largest internet companies after decades of unbridled growth.
The stakes are particularly high for Google, the Silicon Valley company founded in 1998, which grew into a $1.7 trillion giant by becoming the first place people turned to online to search the web. The government has said in its complaint that it wants Google to change its monopolistic business practices, potentially pay damages and restructure itself.
“This is a pivotal case and a moment to create precedents for these new platforms that lend themselves to real and durable market power,” said Laura Phillips-Sawyer, who teaches antitrust law at the University of Georgia School of Law.
The case centers on whether Google illegally cemented its dominance and squashed competition by paying Apple and other companies to make its internet search engine the default on the iPhone as well as on other devices and platforms.
In legal filings, the Justice Department has argued that Google maintained a monopoly through such agreements, making it harder for consumers to use other search engines. Google has said that its deals with Apple and others were not exclusive and that consumers could alter the default settings on their devices to choose alternative search engines.
Google has amassed 90% of the search engine market in the United States and 91% globally, according to Similarweb, a data analysis firm.
Fireworks are expected at the trial, which is scheduled to last 10 weeks. Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, as well as executives from Apple and other tech companies, will probably be called as witnesses.
Judge Amit P. Mehta, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2014, is presiding over the trial, which will not have a jury, and he will issue the final ruling. Kenneth Dintzer, a 30-year veteran litigator for the Justice Department, will lead the government’s arguments in the courtroom, while John E. Schmidtlein, a partner at the law firm Williams & Connolly, will do the same for Google.
The jockeying over the trial has already been intense. The Justice Department and Google have deposed more than 150 people for the case and produced more than 5 million pages of documents. Google has argued that Jonathan Kanter, the Justice Department’s head of antitrust, is biased because of his earlier work as a private lawyer representing Microsoft and News Corp. The Justice Department has accused Google of destroying employees’ instant messages that could have contained relevant information for the case.
Kent Walker, Google’s president of global affairs, said in an interview last month that the company’s tactics were “completely lawful” and that its success “comes down to the quality of our products.”
“It’s frustrating — maybe it’s ironic — that we’re seeing this backward-looking case and really unprecedented, forward-looking innovation,” he said.
The Justice Department declined to comment.
Rivals have long accused Google of brandishing its power in search to suppress competitors’ links to travel, restaurant reviews and maps, while giving greater prominence to its own content. Those complaints brought scrutiny from regulators, although little action was taken.
In 2019, under President Donald Trump, the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission decided to mount new antitrust investigations into tech companies as part of a broad crackdown. The Justice Department agreed to oversee inquiries into Apple and Google.
In October 2020, the government sued Google for abusing its dominance in online search. In its lawsuit, the government accused Google of hurting rivals like Microsoft’s Bing and DuckDuckGo by employing agreements with Apple and other smartphone makers to become the default search engine on their web browsers or be preinstalled on their devices.
“Two decades ago, Google became the darling of Silicon Valley as a scrappy start-up with an innovative way to search the emerging internet,” the Justice Department said in its lawsuit. “That Google is long gone.”
Google’s actions had harmed consumers and stifled competition, the agency said, and could affect the future technological landscape as the company positioned itself to control “emerging channels” for search distribution. The agency added that Google had behaved similarly to Microsoft in the 1990s, when the software giant made its own web browser the default on the Windows operating system, crushing competitors.
A group of 35 states, Guam, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia also filed a lawsuit in 2020 accusing Google of abusing its monopoly in search and search advertising to illegally wedge out competitors. That case will be tried alongside the Justice Department lawsuit, although Mehta threw out many of the states’ key arguments in a ruling last month.