In Its First Monopoly Trial of Modern Internet Era, U.S. Sets Sights on Google

The Justice Department has spent three years over two presidential administrations building the case that Google illegally abused its power over online search to throttle competition. To defend itself, Google has enlisted hundreds of employees and three powerful law firms and spent millions of dollars on legal fees and lobbyists.

On Tuesday, a judge in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia will begin considering their arguments at a trial that cuts to the heart of a long-simmering question: Did today’s tech giants become dominant by breaking the law?

The case — U.S. et al v. Google — is the federal government’s first monopoly trial of the modern internet era, as a generation of tech companies has come to wield immense influence over commerce, information, public discourse, entertainment and labor. The trial moves the antitrust battle against those companies to a new phase, shifting from challenging their mergers and acquisitions to more deeply examining the businesses that thrust them into power.

Such a consequential case over tech power has not unfolded since the Justice Department took Microsoft to court in 1998 for antitrust violations. But since then, companies like Google, Apple, Amazon and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, have woven themselves into people’s lives to an even greater degree. Any ruling from the trial could have broad ripple effects, slowing down or potentially dismantling the largest internet companies after decades of unbridled growth.

The stakes are particularly high for Google, the Silicon Valley company founded in 1998, which grew into a $1.7 trillion giant by becoming the first place people turned to online to search the web. The government has said in its complaint that it wants Google to change its monopolistic business practices, potentially pay damages and restructure itself.

“This is a pivotal case and a moment to create precedents for these new platforms that lend themselves to real and durable market power,” said Laura Phillips-Sawyer, who teaches antitrust law at the University of Georgia School of Law.

Kent Walker, Google’s president of global affairs, said in an interview last month that the company’s tactics were “completely lawful” and that its success “comes down to the quality of our products.”

In October 2020, the government sued Google for abusing its dominance in online search. In its lawsuit, the government accused Google of hurting rivals like Microsoft’s Bing and DuckDuckGo by employing agreements with Apple and other smartphone makers to become the default search engine on their web browsers or be preinstalled on their devices.

“Two decades ago, Google became the darling of Silicon Valley as a scrappy start-up with an innovative way to search the emerging internet,” the Justice Department said in its lawsuit. “That Google is long gone.”

Google’s actions had harmed consumers and stifled competition, the agency said, and could affect the future technological landscape as the company positioned itself to control “emerging channels” for search distribution. The agency added that Google had behaved similarly to Microsoft in the 1990s, when the software giant made its own web browser the default on the Windows operating system, crushing competitors.

A group of 35 states, Guam, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia also filed a lawsuit in 2020 accusing Google of abusing its monopoly in search and search advertising to illegally wedge out competitors. That case will be tried alongside the Justice Department lawsuit, though Judge Mehta threw out many of the states’ key arguments in a ruling last month.

In January, the Justice Department filed a separate antitrust suit against Google, accusing it of abusing its monopoly power in advertising technology. The company faces two other lawsuits from states that accused it of abusing monopolies in ad tech and for blocking competition in its Google Play app store.

For decades, judges have generally ruled against companies in antitrust cases only when their conduct hurts consumers, particularly if they have raised prices. Critics have said that lets companies like Google — which provides internet search for free — off the hook.

Some tech executives said the Justice Department’s actions made Microsoft more cautious, clearing the way for start-ups like Google to compete in the next era of computing. Bill Gates, a Microsoft founder, has blamed the hangover from the antitrust suit for the company’s slow entry into mobile technology and the failure of its Windows phone. But others have argued that the settlement did little to increase competition.

Ultimately, the Google trial will test whether antitrust laws written in 1890 to break up sugar, steel and railroad monopolies can still work in today’s economy, said Rebecca Allensworth, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s law school.

“The Google trial is a big test for the government’s entire antitrust agenda because its theory of monopolization is very much in play with many big tech companies,” she said.

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