In the ongoing court battle between Google and the U.S. Justice Department over whether the company has violated an antitrust law, the stakes are high.
The outcome of the 10-week trial, which will be decided by U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, could fundamentally change the way people search the internet and reduce revenue for the company that has the most common search engine for online users.
The civil antitrust lawsuit is the first to go to trial in a series of cases targeting other big tech companies like Meta and Amazon. But this particular suit, brought forward by the Justice Department and eleven other states, alleges that Google illegally monopolizes search engine services—spending billions to do so— making it the default company through which advertising companies and website publishers purchase and sell ads.
“The question is whether [Google] is entrenching its monopoly and closing off avenues for competitors to try to develop a competitive search engine,” says Eleanor Fox, professor at New York University School of Law.
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Google has contracts with numerous cell phone providers to ensure that it is the default search engine on devices, making it difficult for competitors like Duck Duck Go and Microsoft’s Bing to make a dent in the industry, the Justice Department alleges. Google, however, argues that they are not a monopoly, instead testifying that users choose Google because it performs the best. The corporation also says that even though they pay to be the default search engine, that does not guarantee that they would be the top competitor.
“It's true that other users can certainly download other search engines. But what is problematic is that the statistics show that when a company gets to be a default, users very rarely change,” says Fox.
Here’s what to know about the case.
What is the trial about?
In January, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming that the company acted in violation of the Sherman Act, an antitrust law that outlawed monopolistic practices. The act helps ensure that no single company or firm has control of a particular market.
In the case of United States v. Google, the Justice Department argues that Google has unjustly monopolized control of the “ad tech stack,” which is used by advertisers and publishers to buy and sell ads.
According to the case filing, Google has paid billions to cellular device manufacturers and browser developers to ensure that it is the default general search engine for laptops, computers, and cellphones. Google’s contract with Apple, for instance, costs the big tech company an estimated $15 to $20 billion annually. That money also ensures that those companies do not work with Google’s competitors. The contract has helped Google account for nearly 95% of all search queries on mobile devices, according to the court filing. Google is worth around $1.7 trillion and has control for some 90% of the American search engine market.
The Justice Department argues that these sort of practices prevent other search engine companies from having a real chance to compete in the industry. “Google is so dominant that ‘Google’ is not only a noun to identify the company and the Google search engine but also a verb that means to search the internet,” the filing complaint says.
Google alleges that it did not monopolize the ad industry, instead arguing that it is just “getting the benefit of a bargain,” says Fox. The company’s attorneys allege that customers simply prefer their search engine as opposed to alternatives. And Google has argued that because it has so much data from existing users, it can provide a better experience for everyone. “It's arguing that the default [search engine] position is pro competitive and pro efficiency and pro innovation pro giving a better product to consumers,” she says.
The contract has helped Google make hundreds of billions in revenue and has also helped increase profits of cell phone manufacturers that engage in these contracts with Google.
How this could impact the future of search
The trial is at its midway point, but it is still unclear how Mehta will rule.
Fox notes that the Department of Justice has a strong case on its hands. The last major case against big tech was the 1998 legal battle between the Department of Justice and Microsoft for packaging its Internet Explorer web browser with its Windows system. The Justice Department argued that the company was illegally monopolizing their role in the computer industry; and ruled that Microsoft violated antitrust laws.
But if Mehta does rule against Google, Fox says that Mehta could decide that the contracts Google has signed to make it the default search engine on mobile devices and computers are illegal. That means that cellphone users could have the liberty of picking their own default search engine, or that manufacturers could decide to work with other competitors.
David Olson, a professor at Boston College Law School, told NBC News that the remedy could cause an increase in the cost of devices to make up for loss of contracts with Google. He adds that Google could still have an advantage over competitors if users still choose to use it.
But despite the strengths in the Justice Department’s case, Fox points out that previous lawsuits against big tech have generally favored companies like Google.
“The Supreme Court has ruled on a number of antitrust cases in the last two decades and has indicated that it has a lot of trust in the market and sympathy with monopoly firms to act responsibly to consumers,” Fox says. “This has made it very hard for plaintiffs to win and that's why this is a complicated case.”
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