By PAUL WISEMAN and MICHAEL LIEDTKE (Associated Press)
WASHINGTON — Google exploited its dominance in the Internet search market to exclude competitors and stifle innovation, the Justice Department charged Tuesday as it opened the largest U.S. antitrust trial in a quarter-century.
“This case is about the future of the Internet and whether Google’s search engine will ever face meaningful competition,” said Kenneth Dintzer, the Justice Department’s lead trial lawyer.
Over the next 10 weeks, federal lawyers and state attorneys general will attempt to prove that Google rigged the market in its favor by locking its search engine as the default choice in a plethora of places and devices. U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta likely won’t issue a ruling until early next year. If it decides Google broke the law, another trial will decide what steps to take to rein in the Mountain View, Calif.-based company.
Top executives from Google and its parent company Alphabet Inc., as well as those from other powerful technology companies, are expected to testify. Among them is likely Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, who took over from Google co-founder Larry Page four years ago. Court documents also suggest that Eddy Cue, a top Apple executive, could be called to the stand.
The Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google nearly three years ago, during the Trump administration, accusing the company of using its Internet search dominance to gain an unfair advantage through compared to its competitors. Government lawyers say Google protects its franchise through a form of payola, paying billions of dollars each year to become the default search engine on the iPhone and web browsers such as Apple’s Safari and Firefox. Mozilla.
Regulators also accuse Google of illegally rigging the market in its favor by requiring its search engine to be bundled with its Android software for smartphones if device makers want full access to the Android app store.
“Google’s contracts ensure that competitors can’t match search quality in ad monetization, especially on phones,” Dintzer said. “Thanks to this feedback loop, this wheel has been turning for over 12 years. This always works to Google’s advantage.”
Dintzer said Google “started weaponizing flaws” more than 15 years ago and cited an internal Google document calling its arrangements an “Achilles heel” for competing search engines offered by Yahoo and MSN.
He accused Google of forcing Apple to give its search engine a default position on its devices as a condition of getting revenue-sharing payments. “This is not a negotiation,” he said. “It’s Google that says: take it or leave it.” He said the company’s anticompetitive tactics were preventing Apple from developing its own search engine. “They stopped Apple from becoming a competitor in search engines,” he said.
And Dintzer said Google deleted some documents to keep them out of legal proceedings and sought to hide others under attorney-client privilege. “They have been destroying documents for years,” Dintzer said. “They disabled history, Your Honor, so they could rewrite it in this court.”
Google counters that it faces very broad competition, although it controls about 90% of the Internet search market. Its competitors, according to Google, range from search engines such as Microsoft’s Bing to websites like Amazon and Yelp, where consumers can ask questions about what to buy or where to go.
From Google’s perspective, continual improvements to its search engine explain why people return to it almost by reflex, a habit that has long made “Google” synonymous with Internet search.
The trial begins just weeks after the 25th anniversary of the first investment in the company: a $100,000 check written by Sun Microsystems co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim that allowed Page and Sergey Brin to set up shop in a garage of Silicon Valley.
Today, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is worth $1.7 trillion and employs 182,000 people, with most of the money coming from $224 billion in annual ad sales flowing through a network of digital services anchored by a search engine that responds to billions of queries per day.
The Justice Department’s antitrust case echoes one filed against Microsoft in 1998. Regulators then accused Microsoft of forcing computer makers that relied on its dominant Windows operating system to also offer Internet Microsoft’s Explorer – just as the Internet was starting to become widespread. This bundling practice crushed competition from the once-popular browser Netscape.
Several members of the Justice Department team in the Google case, including Kenneth Dintzer, the Justice Department’s lead attorney, also worked on the Microsoft investigation.
Google could be hampered if the trial ends with concessions that undermine its power. One possibility is that the company will be forced to stop paying Apple and other companies to make Google the default search engine on smartphones and computers.
Or, the legal battle could cause Google to lose focus. This is what happened to Microsoft after its antitrust showdown with the Justice Department. Distracted, the software giant has struggled to adapt to the impact of Internet search and smartphones. Google took advantage of this distraction to move from its startup roots to a towering powerhouse.