Google’s rivals get day in court as momentous US antitrust trial begins

By Diane Bartz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – DuckDuckGo, which has long complained that Google’s tactics have made it too tough to get people to use their search engine on a mobile phone, will be one of many rivals to the online search giant eyeing a once-in-a-generation antitrust trial set to begin Tuesday.

The United States will argue Google didn’t play by the rules in its efforts to dominate online search in a trial seen as a battle for the soul of the Internet.

The U.S. Justice Department is expected to detail how Google paid billions of dollars annually to device makers like Apple Inc., wireless companies like AT&T and browser makers like Mozilla to keep Google’s search engine atop the leader board.

DuckDuckGo has also complained, for example, that removing Google as the default search engine on a device and replacing it with DuckDuckGo takes too many steps, helping keep them to a measly 2.3% market share.

DuckDuckGo, Microsoft and Yahoo are among a long list of Google competitors who will be watching the trial closely.

“Google makes it unduly difficult to use DuckDuckGo by default. We’re glad this issue is finally going to have its day in court,” said DuckDuckGo spokesman Kamyl Bazbaz who said that Google had a “stranglehold on major distribution points for more than a decade.”

Google has denied wrongdoing and is prepared to vigorously defend itself.

The legal fight has huge implications for Big Tech, which has been accused of buying or strangling small competitors but has insulated itself against many accusations of breaking antitrust law because the services the companies provide to users are free, as in the case of Alphabet’s Google and Facebook, or low price, as in the case of Amazon.com.

“It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this case, particularly for monopolies and companies with significant market share,” antitrust lawyer Luke Hasskamp told Reuters.

“This will be a major case, particularly for the major tech companies of the world (Google, Apple, Twitter, and others), which have grown to have an outsized role in nearly all our lives,” he added.

Previous antitrust trials of similar importance include Microsoft, filed in 1998, and AT&T, filed in 1974. The AT&T breakup in 1982 is credited with paving the way for the modern cell phone industry while the fight with Microsoft is credited with opening space for Google and others on the internet.

Congress tried to rein in Big Tech last year but largely missed. It considered bills to check the market power of the companies, like legislation to prevent them from preferencing their own products, but failed to pass the most aggressive of them.

Big Tech’s rivals now pin their hope on Judge Amit Mehta, who was nominated by former President Barack Obama to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The lawsuit that goes to trial was brought by former President Donald Trump’s Justice Department. In a rare show of bipartisan agreement, President Joe Biden’s Justice Department has pressed on with the lawsuit and filed a second one against Google in January focused on advertising technology.

Judge Mehta will decide if Google has broken antitrust law in this first trial, and, if so, what should be done. The government has asked the judge to order Google to stop any illegal activity but also urged “structural relief as needed,” raising the possibility that the tech giant could be ordered broken up.

The government’s strongest arguments are those against Google’s revenue sharing agreements with Android makers, which requires Google to be the only search on the smartphone in exchange for a percentage of search advertising revenue, said Daniel McCuaig, a partner at Cohen Milstein who was formerly with the U.S. Justice Department’s Antitrust Division.

(Reporting by Diane Bartz; additional reporting by Mike Scarcella; editing by Diane Craft)

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