Sep 9, 2022 - Technology

Google, DOJ square off over search dominance

Illustration of a gavel with the Google logo on the block
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Google pays "billions" to other companies to keep Google Search as the default option on phones, in browsers and elsewhere, maintaining an illegal dominance over the search market, the Justice Department said Thursday in court.

Driving the news: Lawyers for Google along with the Justice Department spoke before federal judge Amit Mehta Thursday in a hearing where both sides laid out relevant facts in the DOJ's 2020 antitrust suit against the search giant.

  • The hearing was a tutorial of sorts for the purpose of educating the judge on different technology aspects of Google's business.

Why it matters: Antitrust cases are lengthy ordeals, and Thursday's hearing marked a flashpoint for both sides as they gear up for a likely trial next year, offering glimpses into the arguments they're likely to make.

Flashback: The suit, a landmark confrontation that is being closely watched by the tech industry and regulators around the world, was filed at the end of the Trump administration in October 2020 and has continued under President Biden.

What they're saying: The Justice Department, along with state attorneys general pursuing a parallel suit, say Google pursues default agreements because it knows switching to another search engine involves too much "friction" for a user and people end up sticking with Google.

  • The DOJ didn't specify just how much Google spends on these agreements, but attorney Kenneth Dintzer described it as in the "billions."
  • "Defaults matter a lot," said Dintzer. "If they don't matter, then these payments don't make any sense at all."
  • The plaintiffs also argued Google unfairly reduces traffic to sites like Kayak, Booking.com and Yelp by filling up search pages with answer boxes and Google-sponsored results, which pushes search results from those sites far down the page where users aren't likely to scroll.

The other side: Google attorney John Schmidtlein argued that people are free to use any search engine they like on Android and Apple phones, for which Google is the default search engine, and switching isn't hard. Companies also choose to contract with Google because it helps their business, he said.

  • Google's default agreements have not foreclosed users' ability to get to other search engines like Microsoft's Bing, he said, and Google has plenty of competition: "Google has to compete tirelessly on the search side and the ad side, or people will take their dollars elsewhere."
  • "People have somehow found a way to overcome the supposed tyranny of a default," he said.

What's next: A full trial is expected to start next year, but some participants expect a summary judgement addressing some of the DOJ's allegations to arrive before the end of this year.

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