Since Sept. 12., the Department of Justice and a group of state attorneys general have questioned more than 30 witnesses as they try to prove that Google broke antitrust laws, in a landmark monopoly trial that may affect the power of the technology industry.
The government is now wrapping up its side in the case — U.S. et al. v. Google — setting the stage for the internet giant to mount its defense starting this week.
Two prime threads have emerged from the government’s case: what it said Google did to illegally maintain its search and search ads monopolies and how those practices harmed consumers and advertisers. We lay out the main arguments.
How Google kept its online search dominance going
Google paid Apple billions of dollars to crush competition
On the first day of the trial, the Justice Department said Google had paid Apple and other tech platforms more than $10 billion a year to make itself the default search engine on the iPhone and other devices.
It was perhaps the most important piece of evidence to support the government’s central argument: that Google broke the law by using multibillion-dollar contracts to be the default search engine across the internet so it could maintain its monopoly. The eye-popping value of the deals had not been revealed before and helped the Justice Department set the tone for the trial.
The $10 billion figure has since loomed large. The Justice Department called several witnesses who said Google’s rich default deals made it impossible to compete. Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, testified that he tried nearly every year to persuade Apple to switch its search default to Bing — and failed. DuckDuckGo said it was nearly impossible for consumers to discover its rival search engine because of Google’s default agreements.
The Justice Department also displayed internal documents from Google in which employees mused on the power of those defaults to keep rivals at bay. The company has countered that anyone can easily switch the defaults on Safari and other browsers.
Google’s scale makes it impossible for others to compete
The Justice Department has also circled around the idea that Google’s enormous scale distorts the competitive landscape, keeping even well-heeled rivals out of the search engine business — which only further empowers Google.
“This feedback loop, this wheel, has been turning for more than 12 years,” Kenneth Dintzer, the Justice Department’s lead courtroom lawyer, said in his opening statement. “And it always turns to Google’s advantage.”
Microsoft’s Mr. Nadella, who was one of the government’s star witnesses, called the internet the “Google web” and said even his big company had largely failed to make a dent in Google’s search dominance.
In one striking moment, Judge Amit P. Mehta, who is presiding over the case, asked Sridhar Ramaswamy, a former Google executive who later founded a competing search engine called Neeva, why Google made payments to Apple and others.
“The payments effectively make the ecosystem exceptionally resistant to change,” Mr. Ramaswamy replied.
How Google’s search dominance hurts people
Google blocks consumers from having access to choices
Government lawyers said Google’s dominance in search had led to a worse-quality product being delivered to consumers.
In one example, the government said that if Google had to compete more with other search engines, consumers might have access to services that were more respectful of their personal privacy. As it stands, Google monitors users to better target them with ads that fuel its bottom line, government lawyers said.
To underscore its point, the government called Gabriel Weinberg, the chief executive of DuckDuckGo, to the witness stand. DuckDuckGo says it collects less information from users than Google does.
Mr. Weinberg said his company struggled to put its search engine in front of users because of Google’s control over default search engines. DuckDuckGo had sought deals with companies like Apple and Mozilla, the maker of Firefox, to be the default search engine in the browsers’ private modes, he testified. But the companies had contracts with Google that were “the key thing preventing us from getting a deal done with them,” he said.
Google has countered that it is constantly improving its search engine, adding features to improve the experience for consumers.
Google uses its search dominance to wield power over online ads
Google’s power in search has allowed it to obtain influence over the market for ads that run alongside the links that appear in response to a user’s query, the government said.
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In this 2017 internal Google document, an executive compares the search ads business to that of selling cigarettes or drugs. The executive testified at the trial that he produced the document during a communications training where he was practicing how to use hyperbole to get someone’s attention.
Joshua Lowcock, who was an executive at an ad buying firm when he testified, said from the witness stand that his firm had, during one period several years ago, calculated Google’s share of search at over 88 percent and Bing’s at just over 6 percent. That dominance made Google’s search ads attractive to the firm’s clients and limited the usefulness of Bing’s ads, he said.
The government also called employees of major advertisers like Home Depot and JPMorgan Chase to attest to the importance of Google’s search advertising services.
Arjan Dijk, a onetime Google executive who now runs marketing for the travel site Booking.com, said Google’s search ads gave it access to an “exclusive, dominant” pool of potential customers.
That allows Google to raise ad prices
During testimony, the Justice Department hammered Google employees over whether they can inflate the prices for search ads because marketers have limited options if they want to spend their money elsewhere.
In one 2019 email shown in court, Jerry Dischler, a Google executive, wrote to a colleague that the company was at risk of missing its revenue targets. If it wanted to avoid spooking Wall Street, he wrote, the company should consider tweaking aspects of its products to drive more search queries and increase ad revenue.
Jeff Hurst, the former chief operating officer of Expedia, pointed to the experience of Vrbo, its vacation rental site, as evidence of Google’s power to raise prices without delivering more value for advertisers.
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In one 2019 email, a Google executive, Jerry Dischler, wrote to a colleague that the company was at risk of missing its revenue targets.
In 2015, Vrbo spent $21 million on Google search ads, generating about 500 million online visits to Vrbo, Mr. Hurst testified. By 2019, Vrbo was paying Google roughly $290 million for search advertising for about the same volume of traffic as four years earlier.
“We spent a heck of a lot more with Google for no incremental benefit,” Mr. Hurst said.
In the cross-examination of Mr. Hurst, a Google lawyer noted that both Expedia and Vrbo had grown and prospered since 2015, and Expedia had shifted its strategy to focus more on generating traffic directly from the mobile apps for its main businesses, Expedia, Vrbo and Hotels.com.