Google's big antitrust trial kicks off, with even bigger implications

The Justice Department’s landmark antitrust case against Google kicked off in court today, marking the beginning of a trial that will stretch on for months, potentially upending the tech world in the process.

At issue is Google’s search business. The Justice Department says that Google has run afoul of antitrust laws in the course of maintaining its top spot in search, while the tech giant argues that it maintains its dominance naturally by offering consumers a superior product.

The Justice Department filed the civil antitrust suit against Google in late 2020 after examining the company’s business for more than a year.

“If the government does not enforce the antitrust laws to enable competition, we will lose the next wave of innovation,” then Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen said at the time. “If that happens, Americans may never get to see the ‘next Google.’”

A large coalition of state attorneys general also filed their own parallel suit against Google, but Judge Amit Mehta decided that the states did not clear the bar that would allow them to go to trial with their own complaints about Google’s search ranking practices.

The present case against Google, centered on its search business, is separate from another federal antitrust lawsuit filed earlier this year. In that lawsuit, the Justice Department argues that Google employed “anticompetitive, exclusionary, and unlawful means” to neutralize threats to its digital advertising empire.

On Tuesday, Justice Department attorney Kenneth Dintzer set the stakes for the trial, which is the first major tech antitrust trial since Microsoft’s historic reckoning in the late ’90s. “This case is about the future of the internet, and whether Google’s search engine will ever face meaningful competition,” Dintzer said.

At the trial’s outset, the government focused attention on Google’s deals with phone makers — most notably Apple — that give its search product top billing on new devices. Dintzer argued that by paying $10 billion annually for those arrangements, Google is able to maintain and even expands its status as the top search engine.

“This feedback loop, this wheel, has been turning for more than 12 years,” he said. “And it always turns to Google’s advantage.”

Google lawyer John Schmidtlein pushed back against that characterization, hinting at the argument we’ll likely see the company mount in the coming weeks.

“Users today have more search options and more ways to access information online than ever before,” Schmidtlein said. He noted traditional competitors like Microsoft’s Bing search engine, but also a broad swath of searchable internet services, including Amazon, Expedia and DoorDash, which Google will argue it competes with.

Google has previously sown the seeds for this same line of defense. Last year, Google Senior Vice President Prabhakar Raghavan said that more young people are turning to TikTok to search for information rather than Google Search, citing internal research.

“In our studies, something like almost 40% of young people, when they’re looking for a place for lunch, they don’t go to Google Maps or Search,” Raghavan said. “They go to TikTok or Instagram.”

In the coming months, Google’s fate will be decided by U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta rather than a jury. We’re a long ways off from that decision, but the company could face massive fines or even an order to sell off parts of its existing business.

If the Justice Department prevails, the trial could reshape the future of Google’s digital empire. But other tech companies that grew to dominate online markets in the last decade are also watching closely. If the government whiffs this attempt to hold an iconic Silicon Valley giant accountable, big tech will likely continue on its aggressive, no holds barred growth trajectory undeterred.

If the Justice Department sticks the landing, the next decade could play out very differently than what we’ve seen before. The signals of that industry-wide reckoning could hamstring incumbents and open up market space for upstarts to define the next era of the internet, wresting the future from the grip of tech's entrenched titans.