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Is Google’s Search Engine Smart or Sneaky? A Trial Court Judge Will Decide

A family member’s hurried Google search for a last-second visa to visit New Zealand recently caused a headache—and provided a timely reminder of why Google faces a landmark US antitrust trial next week.

Tapping on the first link took us off to a website that after a few swipes charged $118 for the necessary paperwork. Only later did it emerge that we’d paid a so-called “internet-based travel technology company” and not a government agency, and been fleeced for more than double the required cost.

Fortunately, our panicked refund demand was fulfilled, but the miscue highlights a major frustration with Google that helped land it in court. The stacks of ads above its search results, like the visa link we clicked on, too often knock users off course from the information that they are seeking.

Colorado attorney general Phil Weiser, a co-lead in the case against Google that begins September 12, says the company has been able to load up on distracting ads because the search giant faces no real competition. “The more time that has passed, and the more Google has been able to establish and protect its dominance, the more aggressive it has been able to push these ads,” he says.

Weiser and the other state attorneys general bringing the case accuse Google of unlawfully amassing its 90 percent share of general online searches and leaving consumers worse off than if there had been true competition. Almost every weekday until late November, US District judge Amit Mehta will hear testimony in the case in his Washington, DC, courtroom.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai, executives from competitors and partners including Apple and Samsung, and a slew of antitrust experts are all expected to take the witness stand. Mehta’s ruling will follow months later, with years of appeals likely.

The Google case is the first to reach trial of a raft of government antitrust lawsuits launched against major tech companies after the Trump administration and state attorneys general stepped up enforcement and coordination in 2019. Millions in taxpayer dollars have been committed to the Google battle, one of the most expensive antitrust cases ever, Weiser says.

The US government’s last big court win against one of the tech giants came during the dotcom boom when Microsoft had to stop pushing its Internet Explorer browser over rival Netscape, at a time when slow connections and the need for installation discs entrenched default options.

The recent crop of cases has so far produced mixed results. Ongoing cases allege that Amazon artificially inflated prices and that Google’s industry-dominant ad business gave itself technical advantages that kept rivals at bay. States last week reached an undisclosed settlement with Google about its mobile app store business weeks before trial. Litigation tackling acquisitions by Meta and Microsoft hasn’t fared well, and although a case against Apple for extracting exorbitant fees from app developers remains possible, none has yet appeared.

In next week’s trial, Colorado, Tennessee, and the US Department of Justice are leading the plaintiffs, joined by every remaining US state except Alabama as well as Puerto Rico, Guam, and the District of Columbia. If Mehta sides with them, he will then oversee a second round of hearings to decide Google’s punishment.

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