Why Google Employees Don't React to the US Antitrust Trial

On Tuesday, Google employees gathered for a collective meeting called TGIF. These company-wide meetings are rarely held on Fridays these days, but the name has stuck.

Executives shared highlights from a recent earnings report and a conference on cloud computing and warned workers against taking disruptive actions in the wake of domestic protests against a cloud computing contract with Israel.

But no one at the meeting, two employees said, addressed a topic that could have a dramatic impact on Google: its historic antitrust lawsuit with the Justice Department, discussions of which are finally coming to a close this week.

For eight months, as tech policy experts tried to guess what a Google victory or defeat would mean for the power of the tech giants in the United States, Google employees mostly ignored the antitrust fight, according to interviews with a dozen current and recent workers. , who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to discuss the legal matter.

Even among Google employees, the legal risks the company faces have become background noise. For two decades the company has been one of Silicon Valley's apex predators, and its employees have grown accustomed to Google's rapid regulatory scrutiny. Why expect anything different this time?

Furthermore, they added, the most pressing threat to Google is the competitive threat posed by Microsoft and OpenAI, the maker of the ChatGPT chatbot. (The New York Times sued OpenAI and Microsoft in December for copyright infringement of news content related to artificial intelligence systems.)

Closing arguments in the trial began Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and are expected to last two days. The Justice Department has targeted Google's search business, arguing that the company has illegally extended its monopoly by striking default search deals with browser makers, such as Apple and Mozilla. Google has argued that the contracts are legal and that its innovations have broadened competition, not narrowed it.

Peter Schottenfels, a Google spokesman, said in a statement that the Justice Department's case “is deeply flawed.”

“Our employees know that we face strong competition – we experience it every day,” Schottenfels said. “That's why we focus on creating innovative, useful products that people choose to use.”

On Thursday, Judge Amit P. Mehta put the Justice Department and Google's arguments to the test in court. He pressed the Justice Department to claim that Google's market power had hindered the innovation or quality of its search engine for consumers.

“I struggle to understand how I could come to any factual conclusions that would say, 'Google hasn't done enough,' or 'Google's product has gotten worse over 10 years,' such that I can say it's because of a lack of competition. ,” Justice Mehta said.

He also questioned Google's claim that it would face competition from sites like Amazon, where consumers search for prices and other results while shopping, saying the average person would see a difference between Google and Amazon.

Soon it will be Judge Mehta's turn to decide. If Google loses, the potential consequences are many. Google may be forced to make small changes to its business practices or face a ban on the types of default contracts that have helped make its search engine ubiquitous. The Justice Department could also seek the divestment of one of Google's search distribution platforms such as the Chrome browser or the Android mobile operating system — a drastic but less likely outcome.

For more than a decade, Google has faced government fines and lawsuits in Europe and elsewhere while making significant revenue and profits. That made all the litigation seem like the cost of doing business to some employees, two of the people said.

Google employees have been taught to avoid talking or writing about lawsuits. The company always tells employees to “communicate with care,” as laid out in an internal document reviewed by the Times. In other words, what you write can end up becoming embarrassing evidence in court.

When an employee in Google's advertising department recently mentioned news articles about the antitrust lawsuit in the office, colleagues shook their heads and said, “We don't talk about it,” the person said.

But lawsuits happen all the time. Over the past six months, Google has settled cases at a steady pace, ending privacy, patent and antitrust claims against the company. Those lawsuits haven't changed much, leading some employees to believe this case is no different.

When employees talk about the Justice Department lawsuit, they echo one of the company's arguments: that the charges against Google Search are outdated, especially as the tech industry has rushed to develop artificial intelligence systems that could alter the market of the research, two people said.

Some employees expect all the legal fuss around the research case to boil down to small business changes and some fines, two of the people said.

Despite employee confidence, William Kovacic, former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, said in an interview that companies targeted for antitrust violations often miss a step, citing IBM and Microsoft. He expects Google to have a similar experience, he said.

The lawsuits can “instill a little more caution in the way the company operates,” said Kovacic, who now teaches competition at George Washington University. “To some extent, I feel like they've already lost. They will never be the same again.”

Google executives hoped employees would ignore the Justice Department's lawsuit. When it was introduced in the fall of 2020, Sundar Pichai, the company's CEO, told employees to stay focused on their work and not get distracted.

In subsequent years, Mr. Pichai typically did not mention the lawsuit and downplayed it when addressing employees at all-hands meetings, three of the people said. And the company reiterated its need to remain silent, sending emails to employees warning them not to discuss the case publicly or with the press, two of the people said.

Lately, other issues have attracted workers' attention more. On Memegen, a forum that serves as Google's virtual water cooler, one person said, commenters continued to discuss topics such as ongoing layoffs, jobs moving to India and protests against the Israeli cloud deal , known as Project Nimbus, which led Google to fire 50 participants for disruption and occupation of workspaces.

On Tuesday, Pichai said it's OK for employees to disagree on sensitive topics, but that they can't cross the line.

“We are a business,” he said.

David McCabe AND Cecilia Kang contributed reporting from Washington.

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