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Google CEO takes the stand in monopoly trial

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The biggest tech monopoly trial in decades is heating up in Washington. The Justice Department says Google broke the law by thwarting competition. Now it's Google's turn to try and prove the government wrong with its star witness. NPR correspondent Dara Kerr was in the courtroom today, and now she is here in studio. Hi, Dara.

DARA KERR, BYLINE: Hi.

SUMMERS: So that star witness was Google's CEO, Sundar Pichai. What did he have to say?

KERR: Yeah. So this trial has been going on for nearly two months now, and Pichai has been one of the most highly anticipated witnesses. So the courtroom was packed. He was calm and tried to answer all the questions he was asked. He has a bad back, so he's actually standing at a lectern for his testimony, which was around four hours. Other witnesses have been seated. And just about all of his testimony was about Google Search, which is at the heart of this case.

SUMMERS: OK. Say more. Why is that?

KERR: Yeah. So the Justice Department's case really boils down to how Google has used its dominance to make sure it's the world's top search engine. Google controls about 90% of the search engine market, and they say that hurts people because it means we don't have a lot of choice in one of the critical ways we search for information. Pichai is one of the most qualified people to talk about this. Pretty much since he joined Google, he's worked on Search products. During his testimony today, he talked about one of his first jobs at Google, working on the little search toolbar you see at the top of web browsers. And he later led the team that built Chrome, which is Google's own web browser that features Search predominantly. He also testified about negotiating exclusive agreements with device makers like Apple to make sure Google is the default search engine on most computers and phones.

SUMMERS: OK. And remind us, if you can, what it means to be the default search engine on a device.

KERR: OK. So when you open your iPhone, say, and go to Safari to search for something like nearby restaurants, you probably don't notice it. But even on Apple's Safari, that search happens automatically on Google's search engine. Yeah. So that's because Google has a very lucrative deal with Apple. And Google has these agreements with other companies like Samsung, Verizon, web browsers like Mozilla's Firefox. During the trial today, the Justice Department's attorneys kept hammering on the point that Google has paid billions of dollars every year for these agreements. For example, in 2021, Google paid more than $26 billion - yes, 26 billion - to ensure its search engine was the default on most mobile devices and web browsers. And the Justice Department says Google uses its vast power to illegally stomp out competition, meaning there could be better alternatives, but it's just impossible to compete.

SUMMERS: OK. Well, four hours of testimony. What did Pichai have to say about all of that?

KERR: Yeah. He agreed that these defaults are extremely valuable to Google, and that's why it pays billions of dollars to keep them. He saw several - well, we saw, not he saw, he saw them, too - but we saw several emails and internal documents basically saying how important it is for Google to be the default. Pichai also spoke about how Google is the best search engine, so companies like Apple see value in these deals, too. Apple doesn't have its own search engine, so it's picked Google as its search engine of choice. And this has already been a long trial, and Google is expected to take another three weeks to wrap up its defense. The Justice Department will then have a chance for rebuttal, and if it succeeds in convincing the judge, that could really change how we use Google Search.

SUMMERS: NPR's Dara Kerr, thank you so much.

KERR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.