WASHINGTON, Sept 18 (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department on Monday objected to excluding the public from court during discussions over Google’s pricing of online advertising, one of the issues at the heart of the trial antitrust underway in Washington.
The government seeks to demonstrate that Alphabet’s Google (GOOGL.O) violated antitrust law to maintain its dominance in online search. The dominance of search led to a rapid increase in advertising revenue that made Google a $1 trillion company.
David Dahlquist, speaking for the government, pointed to a redacted document that contained brief exchanges about Google’s rates for search advertising.
Dahlquist then argued to Judge Amit Mehta, who will decide the case, that information such as the tidbit in the document should not be redacted. “This satisfies the public interest because it is at the heart of the DOJ’s lawsuit against Google,” he said.
Speaking on behalf of Google, John Schmidtlein insisted that all pricing discussions take place behind closed doors, meaning the public and journalists must leave the courtroom.
It is not uncommon for merger trials to have information such as market share, business strategies and pricing redacted.
And sometimes the redactions are broader since, essentially, the companies want the information hidden and the government lawyers fighting the merger are working hard to win rather than worry about too much secrecy , said Katherine Van Dyck, an experienced litigator and senior legal advisor at the American Economic Freedom Project.
“Litigation is a pretty exhausting process,” she said.
His organization pushed for the trial to be conducted over telephone lines, as preliminary hearings were due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Justice Mehta rejected this request.
Van Dyck thinks Mehta’s call was wrong.
“When these cases generate massive and broad public interest, courts need to do a better job of taking that into account, changing their rules and keeping up with modern technology,” she said.
A good example of this was testimony given Monday morning by a Verizon (VZ.N) executive, Brian Higgins, about the company’s decision to always pre-install Google’s Chrome browser with Google Search on its mobile phones.
After about 30 minutes of testimony, Higgins’ testimony was closed for the next two hours.
He may have been asked about Google’s payments to Verizon, but the public will never know. Those payments — which the government says amount to $10 billion a year to wireless carriers and others — have helped the California-based tech giant win powerful default positions in smartphones and elsewhere.
Throughout the trial, Google’s defense is that its high market share reflects the quality of its product rather than illegal actions aimed at creating monopolies in certain aspects of its business.
The antitrust fight could change the future of the Internet, now dominated by four giants who have been under the scrutiny of Congress and antitrust authorities since the Trump administration. The companies have defended themselves by pointing out that their services are free, as in the case of Google, or inexpensive, as in the case of Amazon.com (AMZN.O).
If Google is found to have broken the law, Judge Mehta, who is deciding the case, will then consider how best to resolve the issue. It can decide simply to order Google to stop practices it has found to be illegal, or it can order Google to sell assets.
Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Paul Simao and Nick Zieminski
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