Google's antitrust trial concludes with closing arguments

The United States' greatest challenge yet to the vast power of today's tech giants has reached its climax.

On Thursday and Friday, lawyers from the Justice Department, state attorneys general and Google will present their closing arguments in a years-long case: US et al. against Google – over whether the tech giant broke federal antitrust laws to maintain its dominance in online search.

The government alleges that Google competed unfairly when it paid billions of dollars to Apple and other companies to automatically handle searches on smartphones and web browsers. Google insists that consumers use its search engine because it is the best product.

In the coming weeks or months, the judge who oversaw the trial in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Amit P. Mehta, will issue a ruling that could change the way Google operates or even break up the company — or completely absolve the tech giant. Many antitrust experts expect it to end up somewhere in the middle, barring just some of Google's tactics.

The trial represents the greatest challenge to date to the vast power of today's technology giants, who have defined an era in which billions of people around the world depend on their products for information, social interaction and commerce . American regulators have also sued Apple, Amazon and Meta for monopolistic behavior in recent years, and Google's case will likely set a legal precedent for the group.

“This will be the most important decision and the most important antitrust trial of the 21st century,” said Rebecca Haw Allensworth, a Vanderbilt Law School professor who studies antitrust. “It's the first major monopolization case against major tech platforms to go to trial, making it a landmark case.”

The Justice Department declined to comment. A Google spokesperson pointed to an earlier statement by one of the company's executives that evidence from the trial confirmed that people “have many choices when they search for information online and use Google because it is useful.”

At the heart of the case is Google's dominance in online search, which generates billions in profits every year. The Department of Justice says Google's search engine does nearly 90% of web searches.

The company spent $26.3 billion in 2021 alone to become the default search engine on browsers like Apple's Safari and Mozilla's Firefox, meaning it's automatically selected for users immediately, according to information presented during the process. Apple's share was about $18 billion, the New York Times reported.

When the Justice Department sued Google in 2020, it argued that such contracts were designed to defend its monopoly on its search business and harm the ability of other companies, such as Microsoft and DuckDuckGo, to compete.

Months after the federal lawsuit was filed, a group of state attorneys general filed an antitrust case against Google over its search business and made similar allegations. Judge Mehta heard the cases together for 10 weeks last fall.

The lawyers questioned experts and executives, including Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

Nadella said the rival's dominance has made the Internet the “Google web” and that he fears a future in which Google uses similar tactics to dominate the booming field of artificial intelligence.

“Despite my enthusiasm for introducing a new perspective into artificial intelligence, I am very afraid that this vicious cycle in which I am trapped could become even more vicious,” Nadella testified.

Google's Mr. Pichai later testified that the company had created a better experience for consumers on the web through products, such as the Chrome web browser, that used Google as a search engine.

Once closing arguments are concluded, Judge Mehta will have to determine whether Google has monopoly power over the two products at issue in the case: general search engines and ads displayed in search results. To do so, it could look at Google's overall market share and whether its power over search can be disrupted by competitors.

Then, if he rules that Google has monopoly power, Judge Mehta will decide whether the company broke the law by entering into agreements to become the default search engine on smartphones and web browsers to defend its market share.

Legal experts say he could issue a mixed sentence, which will likely result in the dismissal of some of the government's charges but will establish that some of the contracts and policies highlighted during the trial constitute legal violations.

If the judge rules against Google in any way, he will ultimately also have to determine how to correct the illegal behavior, for example by potentially ordering the company to terminate its default search engine deals with Apple and others. During this phase of the trial, Google and the government may both have the opportunity to present their arguments to Judge Mehta on how to best address any issues identified in the case.

The judge may also look to the European Union, where in 2019 Google gave smartphone users the ability to choose their default search engine in an effort to comply with an earlier antitrust ruling by regulators against the company. While this in theory gives smaller search companies a better chance of competing with Google, many rivals complain that it doesn't work.

While the government has not yet revealed what it might seek if the judge rules in its favor, it could ask Judge Mehta to make structural changes to Google's business, such as cutting off a division that helps the company capture search queries , like its Chrome browser. This would be a more surprising option, experts say.

“I think it's unlikely that the Justice Department would seek some sort of breakup here,” said Bill Baer, ​​former head of the Justice Department's antitrust division. “It is more likely that there will be some sort of restriction on Google's behavior in the future.”

In the late 1990s, the Justice Department mounted a long-running antitrust challenge to Microsoft's dominance, saying it had used its power over operating systems to block some early web browsers. The company eventually settled with the government, agreeing to give computer makers more options to include software not made by Microsoft. The legal standards established by that case were mentioned several times during the Google trial.

Now, Judge Mehta could similarly shape the tech industry and broader regulatory efforts to curb its tactics.

Baer said the ruling could help draw the lines on what behavior is right for a company that operates a valuable and thriving platform and wants to defend its dominant position. This would not only apply to Google's search engine. Apple's App Store, Amazon's marketplace, and Meta's many social networks are all platforms and face many of the same antitrust issues.

The facts are a little different,” Baer said. “But there is a lot in common in terms of: To what extent does your behavior intended to exclude rivals constitute an illegal effort to maintain your monopoly position?”

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