A federal judge will start hearing claims Tuesday from the Justice Department and a group of states that Google abused its power as a monopoly over online search services. The trial is expected to take more than two months, after which the judge will decide whether Google acted illegally — and if so, what to do about it.
Google’s massively successful search tool has turned it into a giant business spanning advertising, cloud computing and the online video powerhouse YouTube. A ruling against it could limit the way Google can compete in the marketplace and reshuffle power in Silicon Valley.
The case is also a test for governments that say tech giants like Google have too much influence over our online lives. The nation’s antitrust laws were first written more than a century ago, and this trial will show whether they can be used to rein in the fast-moving tech industry.
What is Google accused of doing?
The Justice Department says Google, which controls roughly 90 percent of the global search market, illegally used partnerships with other companies to shut out rivals.
Thanks to agreements worth billions of dollars with companies like Apple, Samsung and Mozilla, Google has been the default search engine when billions of web users open a browser on their phones, tablets and personal computers. The government says that has prevented other search engines like Microsoft Bing and DuckDuckGo from accumulating a meaningful share of the market.
The Justice Department also claims Google’s practice of preloading its services on devices that use its Android software illegally helped the internet company maintain a monopoly.
What does Google say?
Google says that its business practices are legal and commonplace, and that when it pays to appear on Apple’s Safari browser or Mozilla’s Firefox, the agreement is akin to a maker of cereals paying supermarkets to stock its boxes at eye level.
It has also repeatedly argued that it has numerous successful competitors, including Amazon and TikTok, even though they do not operate general-purpose search engines.
Consumers have a choice to use other search engines, Google argues, but choose it because they find it most helpful.
What does the government need to do to win?
The government must prove that Google’s commercial agreements meaningfully reduced competition. It will also have to explain how these business practices directly or indirectly harmed consumers — generally an important bar in antitrust cases.
The government must also convince the judge to reject Google’s argument that e-commerce sites like Amazon and social media services like TikTok or Instagram are in the same market as Google’s search engine.
What will happen if Google is found responsible for violating the law?
If Judge Amit P. Mehta determines that Google violated the law, he will also consider ways to fix the situation.
The Justice Department has not yet said what it would ask the court to do if it wins, but solutions available under antitrust law can include forcing Google to restructure.
It could be tricky, however, to find a remedy that doesn’t force companies that are not being sued, including Apple and Samsung, to change their business practices.