Hal Varian, chief economist at Google, leaves court on September 12, 2023. (Photo: Getty Images)
Washington — The historic trial of the United States against Google, accused of having abused the dominant position of its famous search engine, opened Tuesday in a federal court in Washington.
This marathon trial, which is expected to last ten weeks, is a crucial test for the government of Joe Biden, which has established itself as a champion of competition law, but is struggling to convince the courts.
“This case concerns the future of the Internet, and the question of whether Google will ever face significant competition in search,” said, at the opening, the representative of the public prosecutor, Kenneth Dintzer.
According to the US government, Google built its empire through illegal contracts with companies such as Mozilla, Samsung and Apple to have its tool installed by default on their smartphones and services.
This domination of the internet and therefore of digital advertising has allowed Alphabet, Google’s parent company, to become one of the richest companies in the world.
The elements presented by the American government “will show that Google misled public opinion” and that it “hid documents that it knew were in violation of antitrust law,” said Kenneth Dintzer.
According to him, Google pays around ten billion dollars each year to Apple and other equipment manufacturers and browsers to ensure that its search engine is displayed by default.
The prosecution’s representative showed the court a presentation made in 2007 by a Google engineer in which he touted the contracts guaranteeing the installation of the search engine by default, presented as “a powerful strategic weapon”.
With numerous witnesses in support, the Californian company will try to persuade federal judge Amit Mehta that the Justice Department’s accusations are unfounded.
“Google has been innovating for decades and improving its search engine,” John Schmidtlein, Google lawyer, insisted at the hearing. The US government “ignores this inescapable truth.”
“People don’t use Google because they have no choice, but because they want to. It is easy to change the default search engine, we are no longer in the era of modems and CD-ROMs,” said Kent Walker, legal director of Alphabet, before the start of the trial.
“Darling of Silicon Valley”
It is the most important competition law suit brought against a major technology company since the same authority attacked Microsoft over the dominance of the Windows operating system.
Launched in 1998, Washington’s lawsuit against Microsoft ended with a settlement in 2001, after an appeals court overturned a decision ordering the company to be split up.
At the time, Google was “the darling of Silicon Valley as a pugnacious start-up that offered an innovative way to search the nascent Internet,” the department said in its complaint. “That Google is long gone.”
Dozens of American states, led by Colorado, have also joined the battle. Although the judge rejected some of their arguments before the trial — including accusing Google of illegally de-ranking sites such as Yelp and Expedia.
The search engine represents 90% of this market in the United States and worldwide, notably thanks to searches on smartphones, mainly iPhones (Apple) and phones operated by Android (Google).
Google Search activity, i.e. revenues from SEO and advertising based on search results, was worth $42.6 billion in 2022, or 56% of Alphabet’s turnover.
Its rivals, like Bing (Microsoft) and DuckDuckGo, have never managed to gain much traction.
Google is at risk. If in a few months Amit Mehta decides in favor of the United States, the group risks being forced to separate from certain activities to change its methods or to give up signing installation contracts by default.
In Europe, it has already been fined more than €8.2 billion for various competition law violations, although some of these decisions are under appeal.
The stakes are also high for Joe Biden’s government. The lawsuits were launched in 2020 by Donald Trump’s administration, but the Democratic president has made a point of challenging the tech giants, without much effect so far.
In July, the American competition authority, the FTC, suspended its procedure to block the acquisition of video game publisher Activision Blizzard by Microsoft, after a series of legal setbacks.
The Justice Department also filed another complaint against Google in January over its advertising business. The trial could take place next year.