Phone with the Google logo and a justice symbol

Google goes to court in landmark competition trial

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Google and the US Department of Justice (DoJ) have kicked off the most significant antitrust monopoly trial in 25 years.

Over the next 10 weeks, US officials will aim to prove that Google relied on anti-competitive agreements to become the dominant search engine in a trial that could have significant repercussions for Big Tech firms. 

The court case has been described as the most high-profile monopoly trial since the DoJ accused Microsoft in the 1990s of seeking to quash web browser Netscape through illegal, anti-competitive tactics, such as pre-installing Internet Explorer. 

Google – which has denied any wrongdoing – is being accused of paying billions of dollars annually to device-makers, wireless companies and browser-makers to keep its search engine as the default option. In addition, the company is said to have illegally rigged the market in its favour by requiring its search engine to be bundled with its Android software for smartphones. 

The prosecutors argue these deals violated competition laws and led Google to take over 90 per cent of global search queries. 

“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 DoJ said. “That Google is long gone.”

Google, however, has argued that it faces a wide range of competition, ranging from search engines such as Microsoft’s Bing to websites including Amazon and Yelp. It also explained its success was a result of the quality of its product. 

“People don’t use Google because they have to – they use it because they want to,” said Kent Walker, Google’s president of global affairs. 

The suit was first filed in 2020, during the Trump administration, but continued under Joe Biden’s leadership. The current US President has made it a point to challenge the dominance of Big Tech platforms, trying to pass legislation that could curb their influence.  

Many high-profile actors in the tech space are expected to testify during the trial, including Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and Eddy Cue, a high-ranking Apple executive. Several DoJ officials who worked in the Microsoft investigation – including lead litigator Kenneth Dintzer – will also be present during the trial as part of the government’s legal team. 

All eyes in the tech world will be looking at the outcome of the case, which could lead to Google not being automatically installed as a search engine, opening the opportunity for rivals to get a larger market share. A conviction – or even a breakdown – could also have wider implications, threatening the dominance of other platforms such as Apple or Amazon, which could face similar suits. 

“The case against Google is the largest monopolisation case since Microsoft,” said Sean Sullivan, professor at the University of Iowa’s College of Law. It could be the kind of landmark trial that produces “judicial opinions that provide new or better ways of understanding and applying antitrust law”.

Bill Baer, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former government attorney working on competition issues, called it “the anti-trust monopolisation trial of a generation”. 

The trial begins just a couple of weeks after Google’s 25th anniversary. The parent company is now worth $1.7tn and employs 182,000 people. The majority of its $224bn annual revenue comes from ad sales linked to its search engine and connected digital services. 

In January, the US government filed a separate antitrust lawsuit against Google for dominance in the digital advertising market.

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