Google trial begins in first major tech antitrust case in decades

September 13, 2023

The Justice Department’s antitrust case against Google opened on Tuesday morning. September 12, in a packed Washington, D.C., courtroom—beginning a months-long trial that has the potential to subdue one of Silicon Valley’s most powerful juggernauts, reports The Washington Post.

The case revolves around whether Google illegally used its leading industry position to limit competition in its core search and search advertising businesses. It’s the first such antitrust trial against a technology company in more than two decades; the Justice Department took Microsoft to court on similar charges more than two decades ago.

“This wheel has been turning for more than 12 years and it always turns to Google’s advantage,” Justice Department attorney Kenneth Dintzer said in his opening statement.

“The evidence will show they hid and destroyed documents because they knew they were violating the antitrust laws,” he said. “That’s what Google did.”

In a sign of public interest in the case, the court set up an overflow room for members of the public to watch the trial, as well as two media rooms with at least 100 seats for reporters.

The case is being tried by U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2014. Mehta narrowed the scope of the case last month—throwing out several of the government’s claims as insufficiently evidenced, while allowing others to proceed to trial.

Early into the opening statements on Tuesday, Mehta asked Dintzer when Google became a monopoly. Dintzer said it was ahead of 2010. “2010, we find them as a monopolist illegally maintaining their monopoly,” Dintzer said.

One central issue that will be debated in court in coming weeks is whether Google’s payments to device-makers like Apple to have its search engine built into their computers and phones as a default service—beginning in the early 2000s—constituted an abuse of monopoly power. Mehta also will evaluate if Google’s delays in allowing Microsoft access to its search advertising tool, Search Ads 360, amounted to illegal anticompetitive behavior.

Google’s search engine has maintained 90% market share for years, and there is little dispute that the company overwhelmingly dominates this sector. Whether Google abused this position against its rivals is a trickier question, involving arcane ins and outs of antitrust law. The Federal Trade Commission, for one, has had trouble meeting thresholds of proof in some of its recent efforts to rein in Silicon Valley giants.

But antitrust lawyers say that even when judges don’t hand down explicit penalties, such cases historically have curbed aggressive behavior of industry giants. They point to the rise of Google and other internet competitors in the wake of the Justice Department’s 2001 case against Microsoft, which ended in a settlement.

“Microsoft could have easily killed Google in the cradle—and Amazon and Facebook,” said Gary Reback, a Silicon Valley antitrust lawyer who spearheaded efforts that led to the case against Microsoft. “But they didn’t do that because of antitrust enforcement.”

The judgment in the Google case likely will not come until next year. It may be years more before it is clearer how the case has affected Google’s trajectory, including its prospects in the emerging artificial intelligence sector.

Research contact: @washingtonpost