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DOJ's antitrust trial against Google over its search dominance is set to begin

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A once-in-a-generation trial kicks off today in Washington, D.C.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's the Justice Department's lawsuit against one of the world's most influential companies, Google. The government says the company has abused its monopoly power to utterly dominate search.

MARTIN: NPR's tech correspondent Dara Kerr is here with us to tell us more about it. Good morning. Thank you for joining us.

DARA KERR, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So just set the table for me. How big of a deal is this trial?

KERR: Yeah. So we're living in a time where tech companies wield a massive amount of power and have a role in our lives in so many different ways. You know them - Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Google. But we haven't seen a major trial where the government tries to rein in their power in a really long time. The last time we saw a case like this about corporate tech monopolies was back in the late '90s with Microsoft. That lawsuit centered on claims that Microsoft was bundling together its products to decimate its competition. And this case against Google is strikingly similar. With Microsoft, the judge ruled in favor of the Justice Department. Vanderbilt law professor Rebecca Haw Allensworth says it's going to be interesting to see if such a similar case works in the age of the modern internet.

REBECCA HAW ALLENSWORTH: Everybody has viewed that as a kind of blueprint for how we might enforce the laws against the current tech giants. And this is a real test of whether or not that theory works.

MARTIN: What exactly does the Justice Department say Google did or did wrong?

KERR: Yeah. So Google search has become so pervasive in our lives that we use the word Google as a verb. You know, like, let's Google how big the Great Barrier Reef is.

MARTIN: You know, you know, that's true. I think pretty much everybody does that.

KERR: Yeah. Yeah, we all do. And the Justice Department says that's no accident. Google has paid billions of dollars each year to phone makers like Apple and Samsung and to web browsers. Those payments are for exclusive agreements to be the default search engine on those company's products. The government says this means it's near impossible for a new search engine company to enter the market. And that stifles innovation, competition and makes Google an illegal monopoly. Google is worth nearly $2 trillion, and it controls about 90% of the U.S. search engine market. And internationally, it controls about 94%.

MARTIN: How does Google respond to this?

KERR: Yeah, so Google has put together a massive legal team to fight this court battle. The crux of its argument is that its search engine is simply superior to its competitors, and that's why it dominates the market - because people prefer it. The company also says if people want to use another search engine, they can. Despite Google being the default search engine on most devices, it doesn't mean people are forced to use it. In a statement to NPR, one of Google's top lawyers, Kent Walker, called the Justice Department's case backwards looking. So it's going to be really interesting to see how the two sides address this very rapid evolution of artificial intelligence and how that plays into competition in search.

MARTIN: If the Justice Department wins, what's the potential impact?

KERR: So this is going to be a really long trial. It's expected to last about three months. We'll likely hear from top tech executives like Google CEO Sundar Pichai. And it's going to be a bench trial, which means there's no jury, and the judge will give the final verdict. If the judge rules in favor of the Justice Department, it's still unclear how he'd sanction Google. It could be anything from fines to a complete restructuring of the company. And that would really affect how we experience the internet. Either way, however the judge rules, the trial will have ripple effects across the industry in how these companies do their business.

MARTIN: This is really fascinating. Dara Kerr is NPR tech correspondent. Dara, thank you so much.

KERR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.