Prosecutor in case against Google affirms that ‘the future of the internet’ is at stake

The US Department of Justice has accused Google of hiding evidence and documents in the first session of the illegal monopoly trial against the company

Los fiscales del Departamento de Justicia, a su llegada a la primera sesión del juicio por monopolio contra Google
Justice Department prosecutors – including Kenneth Dintzer, center – arrive at the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C.Nathan Howard (AP)
Miguel Jiménez

In courtroom number 10 of the US District Court in Washington, DC, there’s an eerie wall clock that doesn’t have any hands. It’s fitting that, in this room full of lawyers, the prosecutor who has accused Google of abusing its monopoly position as a search engine has proposed to do a bit of time-travelling.

In his opening statement, he said that “the future of the internet” is at stake in the trial that began on Tuesday, September 12. And, to lay the foundations for that future – and to see whether or not Google’s search engine will ever face significant competition, he added – we must look to the past and see how the firm “has illegally maintained a monopoly for more than a decade.”

The complex where the antitrust trial against Google is being held is the same building in which charges were filed against former President Donald Trump, for attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 elections. The atmosphere was just as tense today. There were photographers and television cameras stationed at the entrances. Lines to enter the court moved slowly. Two extra rooms were set up to accommodate the large number of journalists who have been assigned to the most important illegal monopoly trial in two decades (the last one being the Microsoft case).

In the courtroom – which EL PAÍS managed to gain access to – about half of the 100 or so people present were lawyers for both parties. Judge Amit P. Mehta entered the courtroom punctually, at 9:30 in the morning. He cracked a joke: “Even for Washington, I think we have a higher concentration of blue suits than anywhere else here today.”

Justice Department prosecutor Kenneth Dintzer, 59, gave his opening statements with the help of slides, which were projected on two large screens and on the multiple monitors being watched by judges, prosecutors and lawyers. In one of the first slides, he presented the circle – vicious or virtuous, depending on who you ask – that Google has used to establish its dominance in the world of online searches. That wheel – made up of searches, scale, income and exclusive agreements – has been spinning for more than a decade, Dintzer noted, while emphasizing that “it always does so in favor of Google.”

Dintzer – who stuttered at times, especially when the judge interrupted him with his questions – hasn’t put an exact date on when Google reached its dominant position, but has assured the court that it has been maintaining this monopoly with illegal practices since 2010. Having a monopoly is legal… what’s against the law is abusing it. The accusation focuses, above all, on the agreements with mobile and browser manufacturers – such as Apple, Samsung or Mozilla – which ensured that Google became the default search engine. This is something that the prosecution claims that Google has used as “a weapon.”

“Google pays more than $10 billion a year for these privileged positions,” Dintzer explained. “Google’s contracts ensure that rivals can’t match ad monetization search quality, especially on phones.” He showed internal Google messages on the screens, which revealed how the company put pressure on its partners. For instance, one exchange showed how Google executives demanded that Apple not divert searches to Siri, or that Samsung not offer users its own suggestions. “Your Honor, this is a monopoly in action.”

The prosecutor has also accused the company of hiding and deleting internal documents and messages that could be used as evidence against it. “They turned history off, your honor, so they could rewrite it in this court,” Dintzer affirmed.

The reply was made by John Schmidtlein – a 57-year-old partner at the law firm Williams & Connolly – who is defending Google. The lawyer assured the court that users now have more search options and more ways to access information on the internet than ever before. In general searches, Google’s share is 89% in the United States, according to the Department of Justice.

The company – which has now been integrated into Alphabet Inc. – opines that the market to take into account should be broader and include product searches on Amazon, or those carried out on social media applications, such as Instagram or TikTok, in addition to artificial intelligence. Travel firms – TripAdvisor, Expedia, Booking.com or Hotels.com – or food delivery firms – such as Doordash, UberEats and Yelp – are also Google’s rivals, according to the defense.

Schhmidtein insisted that, if the other competitors haven’t achieved as much success, it’s not because Google has abused its position. Rather, it’s simply because Google’s search engine is better. He also stressed that it’s easy to change the default search engine on browsers… although the prosecutor pointed out that users don’t usually do so. The judge then asked the lawyer how many people do it, but he got out of the question by saying that there’s no data available. To try to demonstrate his client’s good faith, he has indicated that there are tutorials on YouTube (which is owned by Google) that teach users how to switch to another default search engine.

“The plaintiffs’ allegations seek to distort competition in [online] search by hindering Google and its ability to compete, in the hope that forcing people to use inferior products in the short-term will somehow be good for competition in the long-term,” the defence attorney concluded in his argument.

After these initial presentations, a parade of witnesses will begin, in a trial that is set to last about 10 weeks. Among them is the CEO of Alphabet Inc., Sundar Pichai. Various Apple executives are also expected to be called to the stand.

If Judge Amit P. Mehta – appointed in 2014 by Barack Obama – concludes that Google’s position is monopolistic and that the company has abused it – and that this has directly or indirectly harmed consumers – he will have ample room to make corrective decisions. The Department of Justice, in its lawsuit, refers to these sanctions in a very generic way. The sentence will be appealable in an appeals court and, potentially, before the Supreme Court.

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced another lawsuit against Google in January, for alleged abuse of a dominant position in the digital advertising market. That case, however, isn’t expected to go to trial until at least next year. In said lawsuit, the American government explicitly demands that Google’s commercial interests in that area be divided through divestments to promote competition.

The European Union has been ahead of the game in the offensive against Google’s monopolistic practices. While the trial of the first of the two pending cases is now beginning in the United States (although there was a third, regarding the application store, in which the company reached an out-of-court settlement), the European Commission has already given Google the three highest fines in its history. A year ago, the judges supported a record fine of 4.125 billion euros ($4.6 billion) against the company, ruling that Google engaged in anti-competitive practices via search services. This case was similar to the one that’s now going to be tried in Washington, but it was focused on the Android operating system.

Further back, in November of 2021, the European Commission fined Google 2.4 billion euros ($2.6 billion) for privileging their products in searches – an element has been left out of the current litigation in the United States. And, before this, in March of 2019, the Commission also imposed another fine of almost $1.5 billion for Google’s abuses in the digital advertising market. In less than three years, the largest search engine took a hit of more than $8 billion in Europe due to its monopolistic practices.

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