Oct 30, 2023 - Technology

Google CEO defends search agreements in court

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet Inc., on Capitol Hill on Sept. 13, 2023. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet, testified in federal court Monday defending his company's multibillion dollar deals that lock in Google Search as the default on the vast majority of devices and web browsers.

Why it matters: Pichai is the highest-ranking Alphabet executive to appear in court during the company's antitrust trial.

  • The Justice Department's lawsuit argues that Google has unfairly maintained its top search position with such agreements, keeping rival search engines from gaining any significant foothold in the market and limiting choices for consumers.

The big picture: Starting in 2005, Google has paid up billions per year to be the default search engine on mobile devices and PCs, court proceedings have revealed; in 2021, it paid $26 billion.

  • The company maintains that Google search's success is because it is innovative and useful to consumers, and that it faces increasing competition from companies like TikTok, Amazon and Expedia as people turn to more specialized search services to find what they need.

The other side: The Justice Department argues that even though people can switch their default search engine, most people don't do so, limiting the opportunity for Google search rivals like Microsoft's Bing and DuckDuckGo.

  • Government lawyers have also argued that Google, which has 90% of the market for search, pays for its placement to make more digital advertising dollars.

What they're saying: Pichai said such agreements make it easier for people to access Google and are well worth the cost: "We pay an amount of money based on the value we see," he said.

  • "We know people are looking to use Google, and that it will lead to increased use," Pichai testified of the default agreements. He was lead negotiator of Google's renewed 2016 agreement with Apple, and wanted to keep the agreement to make sure Apple didn't direct search queries from its Safari browser to Google's rivals, he said.
  • Pichai said advancements in artificial intelligence would make Google search even more innovative: "With AI, we're at the early stages of thinking what's possible for our customers."

The intrigue: Throughout case proceedings, DOJ has taken issue with Google marking internal documents as "privileged" and destroying certain communications.

  • DOJ attorney Meagan Bellshaw pressed Pichai on Google's "chat retention" policy and asked if he copied Google top legal officer Kent Walker on emails when he wasn't seeking legal advice but wanted information to remain confidential.
  • Pichai defended communications by Google employees with Google's legal team as proper and normal procedure, and said he was not always privy to executive decisions around deleting messaging and chats as he was working on products.

What's next: Judge Amit Mehta is not expected to issue any decisions until next year, and appeals are expected. A separate trial would establish any remedies if Google is found liable.

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