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Judge clears way for DOJ’s antitrust case against Google to go to trial

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal judge said the Department of Justice’s landmark case alleging Google’s dominance over the online search business is anti-competitive can go ahead, throwing out some of the government’s claims but ruling that a trial is still necessary.

Google had asked for the judge to make a ruling before the trial, which is scheduled for September. Some of the government’s claims, including those put together by a consortium of state attorneys general that argued the way Google designed its search engine page was unfairly harming competitors like Yelp, were dismissed.

But D.C. District Court Judge Amit Mehta said the allegations that Google’s overall business practices constitute a monopoly that violates the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act still deserve a trial.

“This is a significant victory for Google, knocking out several claims and narrowing the range of activities at issue for trial,” said David Olson, an associate professor and antitrust expert at Boston College’s law school. “Having said that, the strongest claims against Google remain, so Google still remains at risk of a significant antitrust ruling against it.”

The trial will be a major test for Google and the massive business empire it has assembled over the past two decades. The company is still the dominant portal to the internet, exercising immense power over what people see online. The case is the culmination of one of many antitrust investigations launched against Google and other Big Tech companies over the last several years. The eventual ruling will also be seen as a test for the U.S. government’s more aggressive posture on antitrust.

“People have more ways than ever to access information, and they choose to use Google because it’s helpful. We look forward to showing at trial that promoting and distributing our services is both legal and pro-competitive,” said Kent Walker, Google’s president of global affairs and chief legal officer.

The DOJ did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Over the past several years, a new, more aggressive approach to antitrust has become popular among lawmakers and regulators in the United States. Officials like Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan have bucked decades of antitrust policy more deferential to corporations and focused on consumer harm rather than fighting consolidation in general.

But the new crop of antitrust crusaders has run up against the U.S. court system, where some judges have been skeptical of the new approach. In July, a judge dealt a significant blow to the government’s attempts to slow consolidation when it ruled Microsoft could go ahead with its acquisition of video game giant Activision. The FTC is appealing the decision.

In the Friday ruling, the judge in the Google case rejected the government’s argument that Google’s illegal dominance was built on a set of behaviors that on their own might not be illegal, Olson said. “Instead, Judge Mehta ruled that the plaintiffs must accuse and prove each separate behavior as anticompetitive.”

The trial will begin in the midst of a boom in generative AI — a wave of new technology that has been pushed by Google’s competitors and has thrown the company onto its back foot. Google executives have already begun arguing that the rise of AI companies like OpenAI shows that the tech world is still competitive and that the company doesn’t have an unfair grip on who wins and who loses, as some antitrust experts and the company’s competitors have argued.

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