Washington—— Starting Tuesday, Google will face threats to its dominant search engine as federal regulators seek to dismantle its internet empire in the largest U.S. antitrust trial in a quarter-century.
Over the next 10 weeks, federal lawyers and state attorneys general will try to prove that Google manipulated the market in its favor by locking its search engine into the default choice for so many places and devices. U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta may not rule until early next year. If he decides Google violated the law, another trial will determine what steps should be taken to rein in the Mountain View, Calif.-based company.
Executives from Google, its parent Alphabet Inc. and other powerful technology companies are expected to testify. That could include Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, who succeeded Google co-founder Larry Page four years ago. Court documents also show that senior Apple executive Eddy Cue may be subpoenaed to appear in court.
The Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google nearly three years ago during the Trump administration, accusing the company of using its dominance of internet search to gain an unfair advantage over rivals. Government lawyers claim Google pays to protect its franchise, spending billions of dollars a year to be the default search engine on iPhones and web browsers like Apple’s Safari and Mozilla Firefox.
Regulators also accuse Google of illegally manipulating the market in its favor by requiring its search engine to be bundled with its smartphone Android software if device makers want full access to the Android app store.
Google counters that despite controlling about 90% of the Internet search market, it still faces widespread competition. Google said its competitors include search engines such as Microsoft’s Bing and websites such as Amazon and Yelp, where consumers can post questions about what to buy or where to go.
From Google’s perspective, the constant improvement of its search engine explains why people keep returning to it almost reflexively, a habit that long ago made “Googling” synonymous with finding things on the Internet.
The trial begins on the 25th anniversary of the company’s first investment. Sun Microsystems co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim wrote a check for $100,000, and Page and Sergey Brin were able to set up shop in a Silicon Valley garage.
Today, Google parent Alphabet is worth $1.7 trillion and has 182,000 employees, much of it funded by $224 billion in annual ad sales that flow through a network of search-engine-based digital services that are processed every day Billions of queries.
The Justice Department’s antitrust case echoes a case filed against Microsoft in 1998. Regulators later accused Microsoft of forcing computer makers that relied on its dominant Windows operating system to also adopt Microsoft’s Internet Explorer just as the Internet was starting to become mainstream. This bundling beat out competition from the once-popular browser Netscape.
Several members of the Justice Department team involved in the Google case — including Kenneth Dintzer, the Justice Department’s chief litigator — are also involved in the Microsoft investigation.
Google could be in trouble if the trial ends with concessions that weaken it. One possibility is that the company could be forced to stop paying Apple and others to make Google the default search engine on smartphones and computers.
Or the legal battle could cause Google to lose focus. That’s what happened to Microsoft after its antitrust showdown with the Justice Department. The software giant is distracted and struggling to adapt to the impact of Internet search and smartphones. Google used this disruption to catapult itself from startup to a powerhouse.