5 key questions in the Google antitrust trial

The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Google are facing off in a 10-week trial that will put Google’s policies and deals with other companies in the industry in the spotlight.

The federal government and a coalition of state attorneys general are aiming to make a case that the tech giant maintains an illegal monopoly in the search market and harmed innovation. 

Google will push back, arguing that its popularity is driven by having superior products.

Here are five key questions that are at the center of the trial. 

Are Google’s deals with Apple and other providers exclusive? 

The federal government alleges that Google has used exclusive deals with other tech companies to be the default search engine on browsers and mobile devices to crowd out competition illegally.

During his opening statement, DOJ attorney Kenneth Dintzer highlighted Google’s deals with Apple, which allows Google to be the default search engine for Apple devices and the Safari browser. 

Google once called the potential loss of Apple as the default browser a “code red situation,” Dintzer said, citing evidence the government plans to introduce.

Similarly, the DOJ highlighted agreements between Google and manufacturers to be the default browser and include a suite of related Google apps, such as Google Maps and the PlayStore, preloaded onto Android devices.

John Schmidtlein, an attorney at law firm Williams & Connolly representing Google, countered in his opening statement that agreements were not exclusive.

Schmidtlein said that users could easily change the default browser on their devices with several “taps,” unlike when Microsoft faced a federal antitrust suit over the software used on personal computers.

Schmidtlein also argued that technology companies and users prefer Google products. He said the company will provide evidence that shows that users opt for Google search even when alternative options, such as Microsoft’s Bing, are set as the default.

The government, however, questioned why Google is spending billions of dollars on deals that keep its browser as the default option while downplaying the value of being the default browser.

Does Google limit online ad competition through search?

The states’ case is focused on Google’s search engine marketing tool, SA360. The tool offers a centralized service to place ads across search engines, including but not limited to Google. 

William Cavanaugh, a lawyer at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler representing the coalition of states, argued that Google has limited competition and forced prices higher for advertisers by limiting some of the tools’ capabilities only for advertisers who place ads on Google and not alternative search engines such as Microsoft’s Bing.

For example, Google’s auction time bidding feature on SA360, which provides real-time information about contextual signals to advertisers, is available for advertisers who place ads on Google but not Bing. 

Cavanaugh alleged that Google has kept this function limited to ads on its search engine since the company makes “significantly more money” doing so than from ads purchased through SA360 and placed onto alternative search engines. 

The states argue this hurts companies who place ads since Google has more control over prices with limited competition. 

Google, however, argued that it is not responsible under the law to make that feature available for Microsoft. The company is also testing how to integrate it, although it is not available today, Schmidtlein said. 

Is Google’s dominance limiting search innovation?

Proving that Google has limited innovation through its market dominance is key to the federal government’s case.

By maintaining a monopoly, Dintzer said, Google has not had to innovate to keep up with competition. He argued that a fair market could have forced Google to improve options for consumers on everything from search efficiency to data protection.

Schmidtlein dismissed the DOJ’s argument on a lack of innovation and argued the company’s dominance in search is because of its innovation, citing the company’s switch from web to mobile search. 

He said Google would prove that Microsoft’s Bing “failed to win customers because the company didn’t invest, innovate or prioritize development in search, particularly in mobile search, to the degree that Google did.”

Who counts as Google’s competitors in search?

The federal government and Google also sparred over which tech companies can be considered competitors to the tech giant in the search market.

Schmidtlein argued that social media platforms like TikTok, Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram, and online shopping sites like Amazon, are pushing Google to continue to innovate and maintain users.

But DOJ’s Dintzer argued that platforms such as TikTok and artificial intelligence tool ChatGPT are not rivals in this sense because they are not general search. 

Instead, he argued Google’s rivals in search are limited to alternative search engines like Bing, Yahoo and DuckDuckGo, which the government will show have minimal hold in the search market.

Who is expected to testify?

Over the course of the 10-week trial, both sides will call in executives from other tech companies and experts to help make their cases. 

The DOJ will call Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella among other witnesses to show that the company does have a willingness to invest in search, but the alleged exclusive agreements cap that investment and locks in a status quo with Google as a dominant force. 

The government will also call former and current Google staff, Dintzer said. The government kicked off its questioning Tuesday with Hal Varian, chief economist at Google. 

Former Google executive Sridhar Ramaswamy, who co-founded the now-defunct search engine Neeva, will also be called to testify, Dintzer said. 

Google will call witnesses from Apple, including senior vice president of services Eddy Cue and senior vice president of machine learning John Giannandrea, to show that its products are preferred by other technology companies.

Google will also call witnesses from Samsung, AT&T and T-Mobile to further make its case to defend its agreements on mobile devices.

Tags Satya Nadella