Friday, February 23

Google C.E.O. Says Tech Giant Has Improved the Web for All Consumers

As Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, tells it, his company has always been on the side of consumers. It has paid billions to other industry giants, like Apple and Samsung, he said, to make sure Google’s internet search engine worked as well as it should on those companies’ devices.

Testifying on Monday in Google’s landmark antitrust trial, Mr. Pichai directly contradicted the Justice Department’s claims that his company’s huge payments to companies like Apple to be the default internet search option on their popular devices represent its unchecked monopoly power. Mr. Pichai said he had been worried that Apple, in particular, would make it more difficult to use Google’s search on its devices, and he believed Google had to pay to make sure that wouldn’t happen.

“Given that Apple designs the experience, it wasn’t clear how they would change the experience if the financial incentive wasn’t there,” Mr. Pichai said.

The Google chief was the highest profile witness to testify so far in the 10-week trial. The monopoly trial — the first involving a tech giant of the modern internet era — reflects increasing efforts in Washington to rein in the power of Big Tech.

The Federal Trade Commission has filed its own antitrust lawsuit against Meta, arguing it stifled nascent competitors, and Amazon, saying it squeezes small merchants and favors its own services. On Monday, President Biden will sign an executive order laying out the government’s first rules for the artificial intelligence systems that Silicon Valley companies have raced to build.

Mr. Pichai opted to stand at a lectern to deliver his testimony rather than sitting at the witness stand as he tried to undercut claims by the Justice Department and state attorneys general that Google stifled competition through default-distribution deals with companies like Apple and Samsung.

Google paid $26.3 billion for its search engine to be the default selection on mobile and desktop browsers in 2021, according to Google’s internal data presented during the trial. A majority of that, about $18 billion, went to Apple, The New York Times has reported.

Google’s competitors testified earlier in the trial that the payments effectively made it impossible for them to compete. Satya Nadella, the chief executive of Microsoft, said the search giant’s power was so significant that the internet was really the “Google web” and that its relationship with Apple was “oligopolistic.”

Mr. Pichai, who is also chief executive of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, told a different story. He joined Google in 2004 and led the development of its Chrome web browser, which debuted in 2008. In 2014, he began leading product and engineering for many of the company’s core products, including Search, Maps, Play and Android. The next year, he was named chief executive.

For 45 minutes, Google’s lead litigator in the trial, John Schmidtlein, guided Mr. Pichai through questions about his almost two decades at the company, which has intersected with many of the products and deals at the heart of the case.

He said that in negotiations with Apple to be the default search engine on its devices, he was told by Eddy Cue, an Apple executive, that the deal was “very competitive.” He said that Mr. Cue acknowledged there was “tension” in the relationship between the two companies because Apple’s revenue share from the deal, which was proportional to the traffic it sends to Google, had fallen.

Mr. Pichai said he was worried that if Google did not improve the financial terms of the deal, Apple would degrade the experience of using its search engine.

“There was a lot of uncertainty about what would happen if the deal didn’t exist,” he said.

Mr. Pichai discussed how products that had Google as the default search engine, including the popular Chrome browser and the Android smartphone operating system, had boosted competition across the industry.

When Chrome was released in 2008, Mr. Pichai said, it challenged the “stagnant” incumbent, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, and provided users with a better experience on the web. Internet Explorer offered product updates annually or once every two years, he said, while Chrome released new versions every six weeks.

He testified that Android’s direct competition with Apple had improved all smartphones, leading to better screens and interfaces as well as increased usage in applications and Google’s search engine.

His comments appeared to be aimed at addressing the legal standard both sides say applies to the case. If the government can prove that Google’s conduct has resulted in diminishing competition, Google must defend itself by showing its behavior was justified because of ways that it bolsters competition.