WASHINGTON — Testifying in the biggest U.S. antitrust case in a quarter century, Google CEO Sundar Pichai defended his company’s practice of paying Apple and other tech companies to make Google the default search engine on their devices, saying the intent was to make the user experience “seamless and easy.’’
The Department of Justice contends that Google — a company whose very name is synonymous with scouring the internet — pays off tech companies to lock out rival search engines to smother competition and innovation. According to court documents the government entered into the record last week, the payments came to more than $26 billion in 2021, a year in which operating expenses for Google’s parent company, Alphabet, were nearly $68 billion.
Google contends that it dominates the market because its search engine is better than the competition’s. “We are working very, very hard for any given query we provide the best experience,” Pichai said. “That’s always been our true north.”
Born in India, Pichai joined joined Google in 2004 from the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Before becoming CEO, he helped develop Google Chrome, the world’s most popular web browser, and was named to the company’s top job in 2015. He is also CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Under his leadership, the company’s net income ballooned to $60 billion last year from $19.5 billion in 2016, the first full year of Alphabet’s operation.
As Google’s star defense witness, Pichai testified Monday that Google’s payments to phone manufacturers and wireless phone companies were partly meant to nudge them into making costly security upgrades and other improvements to their devices, not just to ensure Google was the first search engine users encounter when they open their smartphones or computers.
Google benefits from the deals because it makes money when users click on advertisements that pop up in its searches and shares the revenue with Apple and other companies that make Google their default search engine.
The Justice Department sought to show that Google feared Apple might establish its own search engine and worried about losing talent to Apple. In a 2019 email shown in court, Pichai asked to be informed directly whenever a member of Google’s search engine team defected to Apple.
The antitrust case, the biggest since the Justice Department went after Microsoft and its dominance of internet browsers 25 years ago, was filed in 2020 during the Trump administration. The trial began Sept. 12 in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. and is expected to run for 10 weeks.
Much of the testimony in the case has been held behind closed doors, and a significant amount of evidence has been redacted from documents at the request of Google and Apple, whose attorneys say they need to protect trade secrets.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta likely won’t issue a ruling until early next year. If he decides Google broke the law, another trial will determine how to rein in its market power. The Mountain View, California-based company could be stopped from paying Apple and other companies to make Google the default search engine.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella testified earlier that Google has an almost hypnotic hold on users.
“You get up in the morning, you brush your teeth and you search on Google,” Nadella said. The only way to break the habit is by changing the default choice on devices, he said. ___ Associated Press Technology Writer Michael Liedke contributed to this report.