A landmark trial currently under way in Washington may well decide the future of the internet.
In the dock is Google, the world’s largest search engine. The United States Department of Justice has accused the search giant of muscling its way to dominance by paying other companies like Apple to be the default search engine on their devices.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
“Google pays billions of dollars each year to distributors — including popular-device manufacturers such as Apple, LG, Motorola, and Samsung … to secure default status for its general search engine,” the Justice Department’s complaint says.
This, the DOJ thinks, chokes off competition that includes other search engines like Microsoft’s Bing, and privately held DuckDuckGo.
Google, meanwhile, has argued that its dominant market share — which some estimates peg at 90 percent — is because its product is superior, not because it pays other companies to be the default option.
“People don’t use Google because they have to — they use it because they want to,” wrote Kent Walker, Google’s president of global affairs, in a blog post published days before the trial began. “Making it easier for people to get the products they want benefits consumers and is supported by American antitrust law.”
The outcome of the trial is not expected until early next year, and the result will almost certainly be appealed by either party. But whatever happens might fundamentally change the way Google and other Big Tech companies function.
“This is the biggest antitrust suit related to a tech giant in decades. It could dramatically change competition relating to the technology involved in internet searches,” Eric Chaffee, a law professor at the Case Western Reserve University, told Al Jazeera. “It also could impact how new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, emerge and are marketed to consumers.”
The Google case is one of the handful of antitrust battles playing out in the US as government agencies try to rein in some of the unprecedented power that Big Tech has amassed over the last decade.
On Tuesday, the US Federal Trade Commission and 17 states sued Amazon, accusing the e-commerce giant of using its monopoly position to force merchants selling on its platform to buy extraneous services, and inflating pricing for consumers across the web by forcing sellers to list their products on the platform at the cheapest possible price.
In 2020, the FTC and 46 states launched an antitrust lawsuit against social media giant Meta, seeking to break up the company’s ownership of Instagram and WhatsApp. That case is continuing.
“Over the past decades, the US has watched from the sidelines when the EU has leveraged its antitrust laws against US tech companies, hesitant to intervene,” said Anu Bradford, a Columbia law professor and author of, Digital Empires: The Global Battle to Regulate Technology. “Now, the public opinion in the US is changing as the resentment with tech companies’ outsized influence is growing.”
Why has the DOJ alleged anti-competitive behaviour?
The case — formally known as US et al v. Google — is the first modern antitrust trial that involves a tech giant. It was filed in 2020 under the Trump administration.
So far, it has seen testimonies from a number of witnesses, including John Giannandrea, a senior vice president at Apple who was a Google executive at the time Google inked a deal with Apple to be the default search engine on iPhones.
On Tuesday, Eddy Cue, another top Apple executive who was responsible for negotiating the agreement that makes Google’s search engine the default choice on Apple’s devices, testified in court. Cue admitted that Apple had a revenue-sharing agreement with Google in exchange for making its search engine default, but specific numbers were only discussed in closed court sessions, The Verge reported.
In addition, Cue said that Apple picked Google to be the default search engine because “there wasn’t a valid alternative to Google at the time,” and that still had not changed.
Early in the trial, the DOJ presented documents in court showing internal exchanges between senior Google executives, and claimed that the messages showed that the company was aware of its anti-competitive behaviour.
Last week, DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg testified in the trial and said that Google’s anti-competitive behaviour was responsible for the privacy-focused search engine’s 2.5 percent market share for search.
“Switching is way harder than it needs to be,” Weinberg reportedly said. “There’s just too many steps.”
DuckDuckGo has previously said that people should be able to choose their default search engine with a single click, something that is still not possible on both iPhones and Android devices.
Google’s lawyers, meanwhile, tried to downplay this concern in court, arguing that changing the default search engine on Apple’s devices took just a handful of taps on iPhones. “Go to settings, tap Safari, then search engine, then make a selection,” said John Schmidtlein, a lawyer who represented the search company. “It takes a matter of seconds.”
“This trial focuses on ‘defaults’,” Chengyi Lin, an affiliate professor of strategy at INSEAD, told Al Jazeera. “Behaviour sciences have repeatedly demonstrated that humans rarely deviate from default settings. This case, at the minimum, will bring the idea of choice back into the spotlight for the general population.”
The last time the DOJ went so hard after a tech giant was in 1998, when a trial court found that Microsoft hurt Netscape Navigator, a rival browser, by illegally bundling its own Internet Explorer browser with Windows, the world’s dominant operating system. A judge found Microsoft guilty and ordered that the company be split up. But that order was later overturned after the DOJ reached a settlement with the company in 2001.
The outcome of the Microsoft case is widely believed to have paved the way for the growth of other browsers including Google Chrome, which became the world’s most-used browser in 2012 by beating Internet Explorer.
What is the expected outcome?
Presiding over the case is US District Judge Amit Mehta, a private lawyer who was appointed to the bench in 2014 by former President Barack Obama. Mehta has previously served as a judge in other antitrust disputes such as the one in 2015 when he blocked Sysco Corp’s $3.5bn merger with US Foods.
Right now, the DOJ has the burden of proving that deals Google struck with other companies stifled the growth of other search engines. Signing such deals isn’t illegal under US law — unless a company is so big that such kinds of exclusivity agreements hurt rivals.
If Google is found guilty, Mehta could order the company to be broken up. Or it could simply be ordered to stop continuing existing practices that the court determines to be anticompetitive.
This could lead to more competition in the search space, and changing the default search engine on devices you use could become vastly simpler. And it could have major ramifications on how tech companies like Google leverage their existing market dominance to compete in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence.
“If the government prevails, it could lead to parts of Google being broken up and the business practices of tech giants would have to change,” Chaffee said. “The impact to consumers would be substantial and far-reaching.”
But even if Google wins, this case will change the nature of antitrust itself.
“Even if the DOJ were to lose here, it may have accomplished something important: it would send a message to Congress that the existing legal frameworks may not be enough to upend the prevailing antitrust consensus,” said Bradford. “It would signal that Congress may need to pass new laws if it wants to see a change in how antitrust laws can be deployed and used to discipline the tech industry.