“In the inaugural monopoly trial of the contemporary internet era, the United States focuses its attention on Google”

In the inaugural monopoly trial of the contemporary internet era, the United States focuses its attention on Google

Over the course of three years spanning two presidential administrations, the Justice Department has meticulously built a case alleging that Google engaged in unlawful practices to stifle competition in the online search realm, abusing its dominant position. In response, Google has marshaled significant resources, including hundreds of employees and the services of three formidable law firms, and has expended considerable funds on legal fees and lobbyists to defend itself.

This week, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, a judge will commence the examination of their arguments in a trial that delves deeply into a longstanding question: Did today’s tech giants rise to prominence by violating the law?

This legal battle, referred to as U.S. et al v. Google, represents the federal government’s initial monopoly trial in the modern internet era, a time when tech corporations wield substantial influence over various aspects of commerce, information, public discourse, entertainment, and labor. The trial marks a shift from merely scrutinizing mergers and acquisitions to a more comprehensive evaluation of the business practices that catapulted these companies to power.

This case holds profound significance, as it has the potential to disrupt or even dismantle the largest internet companies following decades of unchecked growth, making it especially crucial for Google, the Silicon Valley behemoth founded in 1998. Google, which evolved into a $1.7 trillion entity, primarily owes its success to being the go-to online search engine. The government aims to compel Google to reform its monopolistic practices, possibly pay damages, and undergo restructuring.

Laura Phillips-Sawyer, an antitrust law instructor at the University of Georgia School of Law, described this as a pivotal moment, emphasizing the need to establish precedents for these new platforms that have acquired substantial and enduring market power.

The central issue revolves around whether Google illicitly solidified its dominance and suppressed competition by securing agreements with companies like Apple to set its search engine as the default option on devices such as iPhones and various platforms. The Justice Department asserts that these agreements contributed to Google’s monopoly, making it challenging for consumers to opt for alternative search engines. Google, on the other hand, contends that its arrangements with Apple and others were non-exclusive, allowing users to modify default settings and choose alternative search engines.

Currently, Google commands a 90 percent share of the search engine market in the United States and 91 percent globally, according to Similarweb, a data analysis firm.

The trial, expected to last ten weeks, is anticipated to be contentious. Key figures such as Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai, along with executives from Apple and other tech giants, may be called as witnesses. The presiding judge, Amit P. Mehta, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2014, will render the final judgment. The government’s arguments in the courtroom will be presented by Kenneth Dintzer, a seasoned litigator with 30 years of experience in the Justice Department, while Google will be represented by John E. Schmidtlein, a partner at the law firm Williams & Connolly.

The lead-up to the trial has witnessed intense legal maneuvering. Both the Justice Department and Google have conducted extensive depositions of over 150 individuals and produced over five million pages of documents. Google has accused Jonathan Kanter, the Justice Department’s antitrust head, of bias due to his previous legal representation of Microsoft and News Corp. The Justice Department, in turn, has accused Google of deleting employees’ instant messages that might have contained pertinent information for the case.

Kent Walker, Google’s President of Global Affairs, maintains that the company’s tactics are entirely legal, attributing its success to the quality of its products. He expresses frustration that a retrospective case is being brought forward while the company is at the forefront of groundbreaking innovation.

The outcome of the trial holds significant consequences. Google’s search engine, initially developed by Sergey Brin and Larry Page during their time as students at Stanford University in the 1990s, gained acclaim for providing more relevant search results than its competitors. Over the years, Google diversified into various sectors, including online advertising, video streaming, maps, office apps, autonomous vehicles, and artificial intelligence. Critics have long accused Google of leveraging its search dominance to stifle rivals and promote its own content.

In 2019, during the presidency of Donald J. Trump, the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission initiated new antitrust investigations into tech companies, including Apple and Google, as part of a broader crackdown. In October 2020, the government sued Google for alleged abuse of its online search dominance. The government claimed that Google’s agreements with Apple and other smartphone makers to establish itself as the default search engine on their web browsers or devices harmed rivals like Microsoft’s Bing and DuckDuckGo.

The trial’s verdict will examine whether antitrust laws crafted in the late 19th century to address monopolies in industries such as sugar, steel, and railroads are still applicable in today’s digital economy. According to Rebecca Allensworth, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s law school, this trial is a significant test for the government’s broader antitrust agenda, as it addresses the monopolization theory that is pertinent to many major tech companies.

In summary, the U.S. et al v. Google trial is a critical moment in the ongoing debate over the power and influence of tech giants, with the potential to reshape the landscape of the digital economy.