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Judge Amit Mehta

SCIENCE & TECH: Google search antitrust judge admits he has ‘no idea’ how he will rule

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The federal judge who will determine the fate of Google’s online search empire admitted that he still has “no idea” how he expects to rule in the landmark antitrust trial.

US District Judge Amit Mehta made the frank admission near the conclusion of the evidentiary phrase at the sweeping 10-week trial in Washington, DC.

He heard testimony from a roster of more than 50 witnesses that included the likes of Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who was grilled over the company’s deleted chat logs, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who called the concept of user choice in online search engines “bogus.”

“I can tell you as I sit here today that I have no idea what I’m going to do,” Mehta said near the end of the hearing.

Mehta instructed Justice Department and Google lawyers to submit their closing briefs on the trial on Feb. 9 of next year.

The judge will not hear closing arguments in the case until May 1 through 3 – meaning a final ruling is still months away.

Judge Amit Mehta set closing arguments for May.
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Both Mehta and Google faced intense public criticism over the unprecedented secrecy of the proceedings, with several high-profile witnesses testifying in closed session early in the trial and key trial exhibits initially shielded from public view. At one point, a DOJ-operated website with published exhibits was pulled offline, though access was eventually restored following an outcry.

When pressured by outside groups early in the trial to block Google’s attempts to seal the courtroom for key witnesses, Mehta declared that he was “relying largely on the plaintiffs, who represent the public interest” to tell him whether it was “objectionable” to shield testimony.

After The Post and other news outlets press for more transparency, Mehta expanded access to the trial.

Matt Stoller, the director of research at the American Economic Liberties Project – one of the antitrust watchdogs who has been critical of Mehta’s oversight — said the judge’s public declaration of uncertainty showed he is a “lightweight” who has been far too skittish in his handling of the proceedings.

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“He never wants to make a decision,” Stoller said. “He’s always like, ‘let me try to find a compromise between what both groups want.’ You can’t just try to split the baby all the time. That’s why it’s such a problem for him.”

Mehta will have the final say on whether Google violated antitrust law and illegally maintained a monopoly over the online search market while building a whopping 90% market share.

If the judge decides that Google indeed broke the law, a second trial will be held to determine an appropriate remedy.

That could include relatively simple changes, such as requiring Google to implement a “choice screen” for users, or larger ones, such as forcing the company to discontinue certain business practices or even sell off parts of its business.

Justice Department attorneys have argued that Google relies on massive payments to partners like Apple and AT&T – including $26.3 billion in 2021 – to ensure its search engine is enabled by default on most products.

Google has a roughly 90% share of the search market.

During the trial, the feds called experts who testified that defaults are a uniquely powerful tool to maintain a user base and that changing the default is a complicated process for many users.

The Justice Department called its final “rebuttal witnesses” this week after Google wrapped up its defense. One of the witnesses, MIT economics professor Michael Whinston, asserted that Google was dispersing profits from its search monopoly to partner firms through its default contracts.

“Google made a lot of profit on these contracts,” Whinston said.

Google’s legal team has rejected that argument, asserting that the payments are fair compensation and proof that the company is locked in competition with other search competitors.

The tech giant also claimed that users can change their default search engine with just a few clicks.

Additionally, Google claims users select its search engine because it is the best product of its kind on the market.

With Post wires

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