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The Google antitrust verdict is approaching. This is what to expect

WASHINGTON – District Judge Amit Mehta last week heard two days of closing arguments in the government’s landmark antitrust case against Google. Mehta asked skeptical questions of lawyers for both sides, hinting at how he will speak when he hands down his long-awaited written decision.

Here’s what we learned during the hearings:

When the judge could rule on the Google antitrust case

Mehta could announce his decision in the coming weeks or months, judging by the timelines of previous big antitrust cases.

As oral arguments ended Friday afternoon, Mehta did not say which way he was leaning on the central issue before him: whether Google exploited its market dominance to illegally eliminate its competitors.

“The importance and significance of this case is not lost on me, not only for Google, but for the public,” Mehta said.

Mehta previously heard testimony over 10 weeks from more than 50 witnesses, including Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and its parent company, Alphabet.

If he finds that Google violated antitrust laws, Mehta would then schedule a “remedies” phase of the trial to determine what, if anything, should be done to strengthen competition in the Internet search market.

A first skirmish in favor of the DOJ

Before getting into the nitty-gritty, Mehta needs to define the markets he is analyzing. This is a key part of many antitrust litigation, and an unfavorable ruling on this preliminary issue could doom the Government’s case.

The Justice Department, joined by a bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general, has said there is a huge market for “general search services” — products that pull information from the Internet to answer all kinds of queries. The Justice Department says Google dominates this market, performing about 90% of Internet searches worldwide, with a handful of rivals such as Microsoft’s Bing and DuckDuckGo far behind.

Google has rejected this market definition, saying it ignores how people use the Internet today. Google argues that there are many places to look for information and products online, such as social media app TikTok, retailer Amazon.com or travel booking sites like Expedia. Together, these serve as a reasonable substitute for Google’s search engine, Google’s lawyers said.

On Thursday, Mehta hinted that he prefers the Justice Department’s view of the consumer-facing market. He said he didn’t see how a combination of assorted websites like Amazon or Expedia can replicate Google.

“I certainly don’t think the average person would say, yes, Google and Amazon are the same thing,” the judge commented.

Google takes credit for innovation

From the moment the Justice Department launched its case in October 2020, Google has said it competes fairly and has earned its market dominance because it is the best search engine. Google lawyers frequently point out that the top search query on Bing is “Google.”

In a good sign for Google on Thursday, Mehta credited the tech company for its track record of innovation and investment in search technology. He said he “struggled” to see how he could conclude that Google has become less innovative over time due to a lack of meaningful competition.

“I don’t think anyone would argue that searches today are very different than they were 10 or 15 years ago, and much of that – or some of it – is attributable to Google and its continued efforts to innovate in search,” stated the judge.

Mehta was especially sympathetic to Google’s argument that its dominance in search can be attributed to its smart early investments in smartphone technology. According to the judge, trial testimony made it clear that Google’s innovations caught Microsoft off guard.

“That is not anticompetitive: the fact that Google was smart enough to jump on the mobile bandwagon before Microsoft,” the judge said.

The judge says that the agreement with Apple limits competition

Google has long been the default search engine in Apple’s Safari web browser. In 2022, Alphabet paid Apple a staggering $20 billion to maintain its default status on Apple devices, newly unsealed court documents show.

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, testified during the trial that the alliance between Google and Apple prevents meaningful competition. According to Nadella, the idea that there is real choice in the search engine market is false.

Mehta said he didn’t see how an upstart could push Apple away from that lucrative partnership.

“I cannot conceive of a world in which any other competitor, particularly a new competitor, could do it if Microsoft could not do it,” the judge said Thursday.

Mehta said that in a multibillion-dollar market like Internet search, you would expect many companies to enter it in hopes of taking away Google’s profits. However, in the last decade only a few companies have entered the market: “Doesn’t that tell us everything we need to know in terms of barriers to entry?”

Mehta asked Justice Department attorney Kenneth Dintzer what Google should have done to avoid this lawsuit.

“Should they not have competed? Should they have stayed away? Should they have lowered their rev share offer?” Mehta asked, referring to the revenue sharing agreement between Apple and Google.

Dintzer responded that Google should have recognized that it had a huge market share and made its conditions more flexible, he said.

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