SCIENCE & TECH: In Antitrust Trial, Former Google Employee Details History of Search Deals
The Justice Department used its first full day of questioning in its antitrust trial against Google on Wednesday to establish that the internet giant had long sought agreements to be the default search engine on mobile devices, which the government argues were used to illegally maintain the company’s hold over online search.
Google responded by highlighting evidence suggesting that companies that signed those agreements — including smartphone makers, browser developers and wireless carriers — did so partly because its search product was better.
Chris Barton, a former Google employee who testified on Wednesday, said the company had been willing to pay mobile companies mainly to become their exclusive default search engine. “That’s the kind of primary goal of the partnership,” he said of the agreements.
The testimony came after the federal government’s first monopoly trial of the modern internet era kicked off on Tuesday. The Justice Department and a group of 38 states and territories have accused Google of illegally shutting out competitors and entrenching a monopoly over online search by using multibillion-dollar contracts with companies like Apple and Samsung to be the default search engine on smartphones.
Google has argued that its success in online search was the result of having a better product, not the default agreements. In opening statements on Tuesday, Google’s lawyer said it was easy for people to switch their search engine and that smartphone and browser makers promoted other search engines as well.
Any ruling in the trial, which is scheduled to last 10 weeks, could have wide implications for a technology industry that has defined communications, culture and the search for information online. A government victory could limit Google, a $1.7 trillion company, and put other tech giants on notice.
The case is likely to be the first of several government monopoly trials against the biggest tech companies. The Justice Department has filed a second lawsuit against Google, arguing it abused a monopoly over advertising technology, and the Federal Trade Commission is pursuing a case against Meta claiming it snuffed out nascent competitors by buying Instagram and WhatsApp.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department began the day in court by questioning Mr. Barton, who worked at Google forging agreements with mobile companies. He was asked about how Google’s early agreements with telecommunications providers and smartphone manufacturers prioritized exclusivity as a default search engine on mobile devices.
Mr. Barton’s job had been to meet with executives from the telecom and smartphone makers, convince them to sign agreements to distribute Google search and see those agreements through to a final contract, he said. The goal was to “maximize the opportunity” for users to discover Google and start to use it regularly, he said.
Google also paid some mobile phone makers and telecommunications carriers a share of its revenue as part of the agreements. “The key thing” determining whether another company was paid was if it would agree to make Google its default search engine exclusively, Mr. Barton said.
John Schmidtlein, Google’s lead litigator, used his questions to suggest that the quality of the company’s search engine was important to those that signed the search distribution agreements.
In one 2009 email, Mr. Barton speculated to a colleague that T-Mobile might consider switching its default search engine to Google because of Google’s strong brand, among other factors. Mr. Barton also told Mr. Schmidtlein that when he pitched other companies, he tended to focus on Google’s “superior product” and “superior monetization.”
The Justice Department then called Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, who had testified on Tuesday about the power of being the default search engine and how Google viewed its position in the market.
Kenneth Dintzer, the government’s lead lawyer, asked Mr. Varian about debates he had with other Google employees over whether or not the company’s significant scale and data troves gave it an advantage over rivals.
Mr. Varian at times sparred with colleagues who thought he was being too dismissive of the role that data played as a competitive advantage for the search engine, according to internal documents displayed during the government’s questioning.
Antonio Rangel, a behavioral economist and professor at Caltech, who the government has employed as an expert witness, also testified that using defaults was an effective tactic to get a user to make a certain choice.
“The consensus is that defaults have a powerful influence on consumer decisions,” he said, adding that he believed having a default search engine on a device, like a smartphone or personal computer, would bias users toward choosing that search engine in a “sizable and robust” way.
The trial is expected to run through November and feature testimony from executives at Google, Apple and other companies. Some of the testimony is likely to be sealed to the public because it involves information that businesses consider confidential. A portion of the evidence displayed in court has also been redacted.