The antitrust trial against Google Search starts today — here’s what to expect

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Google is facing a threat to its core business as it turns 25. This is how it starts.

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Illustration: The Verge

This morning, the US Department of Justice and Google will begin a 10-week showdown that’s been widely (and appropriately) compared to the Microsoft browser antitrust trial of the 1990s. The Justice Department and a coalition of states allege that Google has maintained its dominance in search by striking expensive deals with browser and phone makers — most prominently Apple, which Google has reportedly paid billions of dollars for default placement in Safari.

The case, originally filed in 2020, could determine the future of Google at a pivotal moment for the company. A loss for Google could signal a new era of tougher antitrust enforcement as the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission pursue cases against nearly every “Big Tech” company. It could also tip the balance of power in a growing AI arms race. But it comes on the heels of some notable losses for US monopoly watchdogs, who have struggled to meet the consumer welfare standard that governs antitrust policy. The trial will stretch for months, but here’s what to expect as the first day begins.

What are the US and Google arguing over?

US v. Google (at least, this iteration, since there’s another case in the wings) strikes at the heart of Google’s empire: search. Outside statistics suggest Google maintains a roughly 90 percent share of the general search market, vastly outstripping its closest rival, Bing. The Department of Justice claims Google has cemented this dominance unlawfully, making deals with Apple, Mozilla, and others to make Google the default on nearly every search bar a US user encounters. That includes allegedly paying huge sums for prime placement in Safari.

This is a narrower version of the case that was filed in 2020. Earlier this year, Judge Amit Mehta threw out some of the government’s secondary claims, including arguments that Google’s search engine design disfavored smaller, specialized competitors like Yelp and Expedia. Beyond the central fight about these deals, the main remaining claim is that Google delayed Microsoft’s access to features on Google’s search engine marketing tool SA360.

Google, obviously, denies that its deals are anticompetitive. My colleague Casey Newton has run down many of the arguments we’ll likely hear over the course of the trial. And Google has published voluminous rebuttals to the Justice Department’s case, most recently in an overview on Friday. It argues that consumers can easily switch between search engines and that companies actively seek out Google as a default, so Google owes its popularity to its quality — which isn’t a crime.

There’s one final wrinkle in the case, and it doesn’t directly involve search. The Justice Department claims Google directed employees to use auto-deleting messages in potentially incriminating discussions, and it may seek to use this as evidence that Google had something to hide. A California judge opted to sanction Google for its deletion-happy policies earlier this year, but Mehta has yet to make a call.

Who’s testifying during the trial?

The first day of the trial will be mainly devoted to opening statements. We’ll hear from attorneys representing the Department of Justice, the state attorneys general who filed a parallel case against Google, and finally, Google itself. From there, the Department of Justice will launch into its case. We’ll have to wait several weeks for Google to present its defense, and final arguments could stretch beyond that 10-week estimate.

The Department of Justice is expected to grill Google’s senior leadership over its allegedly anticompetitive behavior. We don’t have a formal list, but Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai is widely expected to testify. Besides that, some of the highest-profile figures may be from Apple. Last week, Apple executives Eddy Cue, John Giannandrea, and Adrian Perica failed to block Justice Department subpoenas that could call them to the stand, which means we may get some insider information about Apple’s business as well as Google’s.

Why does the trial matter?

There’s a wide range of possible answers. At the extreme side of the spectrum, the Justice Department could seek a breakup of Google if Judge Mehta finds it’s acted anticompetitively. A more likely (albeit far from certain) loss scenario could see Google banned from making the kinds of deals that regulators are complaining about. Users could open browsers like Safari and Firefox and get a different default search engine or be asked to pick one from a list.

Would that chip away at Google’s dominance? Cynics may have their doubts — Google has offered that kind of choice in Europe and maintained an overwhelming lead over its competition. On the other hand, upstart search engines have complained that default settings are a serious barrier to competing with Google.

The Justice Department portrays Google as a sclerotic company whose dominance has reduced its incentives to provide good service while disadvantaging newer, more innovative options. That criticism may hold particular traction as several tech companies experiment with new kinds of search built on generative AI. Antitrust regulators are already worried about big tech companies throwing their weight around the nascent AI market, and even a relatively mild defeat could make Google more cautious.

Conversely, a win for Google would be the latest in a string of losses for the Biden administration’s antitrust team. This year, the Federal Trade Commission lost a bid to block Meta from buying VR company Within and another to stop Microsoft from acquiring Activision Blizzard. (Congress hoped to reform antitrust law a few years ago, but its attempts have largely fizzled so far.) Those cases were both very different from Google’s, but a loss here would just emphasize how difficult winning a tech antitrust case has become — at a time when other nations, including those of the EU, are making serious moves to limit tech companies’ power.

How can I follow the trial?

Unfortunately, the trial’s first day could demonstrate a frustrating issue: how little access the public may have. After a last-minute motion, the court will offer a public dial-in audio line for opening arguments, which you can find here. But that’s far more limited than the remote access options for several recent high-profile cases, including the Epic v. Apple antitrust trial and the FTC’s Microsoft-Activision case. Unless something changes, you won’t be able to hear witness testimony over the dial-in, and there’s a good chance the courtroom will be closed altogether during some testimony. This latter part isn’t unusual for a case that involves touchy corporate financial dealings. But Google has fought particularly hard to lock down access to what it calls sensitive trade secrets, and the result may be gaps in our understanding of the case.

I’ll be in Washington, DC, to attend the first day of the trial in person, and I’ll be reporting on my impressions of its opening. The Verge will also have ongoing coverage of news from the case. For blow-by-blow coverage, Bloomberg’s Leah Nylen will be posting updates on Bluesky and is consistently one of the best sources for fast-moving detail in antitrust trials.

Some of Google’s most persistent critics are pulling out all the stops for trial coverage. Matt Stoller’s Big newsletter has embedded a reporter in the courtroom for daily updates, and Yelp public policy head Luther Lowe has launched a trial-focused daily version of his long-running This Week In Google Antitrust roundup. Google’s Public Policy blog will probably be periodically updating with its side of the story. And while access to much of the trial may be limited, the Justice Department maintains a page for its public filings in the case.

And one more thing…

There’s also one new way to keep up with the trial — and other big tech cases.

As with other federal legal proceedings, US v. Google court filings will be uploaded to the government database Public Access to Court Electronic Records, or PACER, where they’re typically locked behind a per-page fee. That’s changed in recent years thanks to the Free Law Project, whose Recap service keeps its own free archive of these public documents. (You can find US v. Google’s right here.) The Free Law Project also runs the Big Cases Bot, an X / Twitter and Mastodon bot that posts updates to important cases.

Many of us at The Verge subscribe to the Big Cases Bot, but its wide net covers a lot of case topics. So in partnership with the Free Law Project, we’re launching the Tech Cases Bot: a feed dedicated specifically to legal updates around the tech world, including antitrust, online speech, cryptocurrency crime, and more. US v. Google is one of the first dockets we’ve added, and we’ll be regularly updating with new and ongoing cases. You can find it on X at @techcases_bot and Mastodon at @techcases@mastodon.social — we hope you’ll check it out.

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