Google’s Pichai to Defend Search Dominance as Trial Pivots

Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai is scheduled to testify Monday in the company’s antitrust trial, where he will seek to rebut the US government’s portrait of the search giant as a colossus wielding billions of dollars to unfairly smother competition.

Pichai arrives after seven weeks of testimony that showed Alphabet Inc. pays as much as $26 billion a year for Google to be the default search engine on mobile phones, PCs and other devices. The Justice Department argues that Google knows that most people don’t change their default settings even if other options are available and that the prime positioning thwarts rivals such as Microsoft Corp.’s Bing or DuckDuckGo. It also benefits Apple Inc., which earns billions of dollars for setting Google as the default on the Safari browser on the iPhone and collects a share of search advertising revenue. 

Pichai is expected to reiterate Google’s defense that its success comes primarily from innovation and offering helpful products, according to a person familiar with the matter. Earlier in the trial, lead Google litigator John Schmidtlein said the company’s default deals were based strictly on merit and that users can change their settings and opt for another search engine in “a matter of seconds.”

The government will likely drill Pichai on why Google, which has 90% of the market for search, needs to pay Apple for this status if its product is so good that people would chose it over other offers anyway. The answer, the government has so far suggested, is that Google has used its prime position to extract more money from advertisers — often by making opaque changes to the rules that control the ad auctions in which companies participate.

Pichai will say the agreements have a valuable role in helping consumers easily access Google, according to the person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named discussing information that isn’t public.

The CEO has a long history at Google, where he has held several roles, including helping to engineer the Android strategy and helming development of the Chrome browser. In 2016, Pichai was Google’s lead negotiator with Apple and helped hammer out their partnership, which included a provision that the two would “support and defend” the deal against antitrust scrutiny, according to a top Apple executive at the trial. The Justice Department has said Google pays Apple between $4 billion and $7 billion a year for its default status, though exact figures aren’t public.

In emails disclosed as part of the government’s case so far, Pichai was shown to have expressed concern about making Google the default, and favored offering a choice. In 2007, Pichai wrote in internal emails to colleagues that Google’s exclusive deal with Apple had bad “optics” and that they should encourage Apple to offer Yahoo as an option in a pull-down menu. “I don’t think it is a good user experience nor the optics is great for us to be the only provider in the browser,” he wrote, according to an email presented at trial.

The Justice Department is also likely to ask Pichai about his directions to staff to avoid creating permanent records of sensitive conversations about potentially problematic conduct. In a chat from October 2021, submitted as a trial exhibit by Justice Department attorney Kenneth Dintzer, Pichai wrote, “Can we change the setting of this group to history off…thanks.” Other Google executives also circulated instructions to staff on phrases to avoid so as to not come across as monopolists.

Judge Amit Mehta isn’t expected to issue a decision until next year, and any resolution to the case is likely to be years away. There will be appeals and a possible second trial to establish a remedy if the Justice Department wins.


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