Ex-Googler details history of search deals in antitrust trial

The Justice Department on Wednesday used the first full day of questioning in its antitrust trial against Google to find that the Internet giant has long sought agreements to be the default search engine on mobile devices that the government alleges were used to illegally maintain ownership of the company. on online search.

Google responded by highlighting evidence suggesting that the companies that signed those agreements — including smartphone makers, browser developers and wireless carriers — did so in part because its search product was better.

Chris Burton, a former Google employee who testified Wednesday, said the company was willing to pay mobile companies mostly to become their exclusive default search engine. “That's the main purpose of the partnership,” he said of the agreements.

The testimony came as the federal government's first antitrust trial of the modern Internet age began Tuesday. The Justice Department and a group of 38 states and territories accuse Google of illegally foreclosing on competitors and establishing a monopoly over online search by using multibillion-dollar contracts with companies such as Apple and Samsung as the default search engine on smartphones.

Google argues that its success in online search was the result of having a better product, not implicit agreements. In opening statements Tuesday, Google's attorney said it was easy for people to switch search engines and that smartphone and browser makers were promoting other search engines.

Any decision in the trial, which is scheduled to take 10 weeks, could have wide-ranging implications for the technology industry that defines communications, culture and how we find information online. A government victory could limit Google, a $1.7 trillion company, and put other tech giants on notice.

The case is expected to be the first of several government antitrust lawsuits against major tech companies. The Justice Department has filed a second lawsuit against Google, alleging that it abused its monopoly on ad technology, while the Federal Trade Commission is pursuing a case alleging that Meta crushed new competitors by buying Instagram and WhatsApp.

On Wednesday, the Justice Department began its day in court by questioning Mr. Burton, who worked at Google and negotiated contracts with mobile companies. He was asked how Google's early agreements with telecommunications providers and smartphone manufacturers gave it priority exclusivity as the default search engine on mobile devices.

Mr. Burton's job was to meet with executives from telecoms and smartphone manufacturers, convince them to sign deals to distribute Google search, and finalize those deals, he said. The goal, he said, was to “maximize the opportunity” for users to discover Google and start using it regularly.

Google also paid certain mobile phone manufacturers and telecom operators a share of its revenue as part of the agreements. “The main thing” that would determine whether another company paid was whether it agreed to be exclusive to Google's default search engine, Mr. Barton said.

John Schmidtlein, Google's lead litigator, used his questions to argue that the quality of the company's search engine was important to those who signed search distribution agreements.

In one 2009 email, Mr. Burton told a colleague that T-Mobile might consider switching its default search engine to Google because of Google's strong brand, among other factors. Mr. Burton also told Mr. Schmidtlein that when he was pitching other companies, he tried to focus on Google's “superior product” and “superior monetization.”

The Justice Department then called Hal Varian, Google's chief economist, to testify Tuesday about the power of the default search engine and how Google viewed its position in the market.

The trial is expected to last until November and will include testimony from executives from Google, Apple and other companies. Some of the testimony is likely to be sealed to the public because it includes information that the business considers confidential. Part of the evidence presented in court was also confirmed.