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Judge Narrows Scope of Coming Trial Over Google Monopoly Claims

A federal judge said this week that the Justice Department and a group of states could not move forward with some claims in antitrust complaints against Google, narrowing the scope of what is set to be the most significant federal monopoly trial against a tech giant in decades.

In the decision, which was unsealed on Friday, Judge Amit P. Mehta of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed four claims in the lawsuits and allowed government lawyers to move forward with three.

Judge Mehta wrote that a trial was warranted to assess whether Google’s exclusivity deals for web browsers and preloading its services on Android devices illegally helped the internet company maintain a monopoly. But he said the government had not “demonstrated the requisite anticompetitive effect” to prove that Google broke the law in other ways, such as by boosting its own products in search results over those of specialized sites, like Amazon and Yelp.

The decision sets the stage for the first major tech monopoly trial since the federal government took Microsoft to court in the 1990s, amid a renewed backlash over the power of tech giants. In recent years, American regulators have filed lawsuits and tried to block the acquisitions of companies such as Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, as they have grown in reach and size.

Some efforts by regulators to challenge the tech giants have faltered. Twice this year, federal judges have declined to grant Federal Trade Commission requests to stop tech deals, allowing Meta to close the purchase of a virtual reality start-up and clearing the way for Microsoft’s blockbuster acquisition of the video game publisher Activision Blizzard.

But the Google trial, which is scheduled to begin on Sept. 12, stands out as the most direct government attempt in years to confront one of the world’s biggest tech companies about longtime business practices. The trial is expected to last almost 10 weeks and to scrutinize not only how Google conducts business but its relationships with other major companies, such as Apple and Samsung, which have largely been shrouded in secrecy.

Bill Baer, a former Justice Department antitrust official, said the cases were as significant as the landmark litigation against Microsoft.

The outcome “will set an important precedent about whether these dominant tech platforms are engaging in behavior that limits competition and disadvantages consumers,” he said.

Kent Walker, Google’s president of global affairs, said in a statement on Friday that the company appreciated Judge Mehta’s “careful consideration and decision to dismiss claims regarding the design of Google Search.”

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The department filed an antitrust case against Google under President Donald J. Trump in 2020. It argues that the Silicon Valley company exploits its power over online search and the ads that appear in search results. The lawsuit was ultimately combined for trial with a separate case about Google search that was filed that same year by the attorneys general of 35 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam.

The Justice Department has separately filed another antitrust case against Google, focused on the company’s software for placing ads across the web, which is headed to trial as soon as next year.

In his ruling, Judge Mehta allowed the core of the Justice Department’s case to stand. But he dismissed three of the agency’s claims regarding Google’s management of the Android operating system, its relationships to phone makers that use Android and its Google Assistant service. He also threw out a central claim brought by the states, which accused Google of providing top billing in its search results to its own products.

Judge Mehta acknowledged in his opinion that Google was extremely popular and noted the bar that government lawyers must clear to prove that it had broken antitrust rules.

It is not illegal for Google to have a monopoly alone, he wrote, adding, “A company with monopoly power acts unlawfully only when its conduct stifles competition.”

At trial, both sides are set to argue over whether the company’s multibillion-dollar agreements to be the default search engine on various devices and browsers are anticompetitive, which could have significant consequences for its core business. Google’s search engine collected $162 billion in advertising revenue last year.

Google has argued that these pacts with companies like Apple and Samsung are simple distribution deals that are common in business, and that the government has tried to penalize Google because of its popularity.

The agreements have been a linchpin in Google’s efforts to be easily accessible to large audiences. The company retains an estimated 94 percent of search engine traffic on mobile devices, according to Similarweb, a data analysis firm.

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