Big Tech Braces for Wave of Antitrust Rulings in 2024

Google says its search engine dominates because it is a superior product that yields the most relevant search results.
Google says its search engine dominates because it is a superior product that yields the most relevant search results.

Summary

U.S. antitrust cases against tech giants Google and Meta are expected to come to a head, likely producing long-awaited rulings that could shape the legacies of top Biden administration regulators.

U.S. antitrust cases against tech giants Google and Meta Platforms are expected to come to a head in 2024, likely producing long-awaited rulings that could shape the legacies of top Biden administration regulators.

Silicon Valley and its critics have seen their patience tested on some of these cases. A U.S. antitrust case brought against Alphabet’s Google unit in 2020 went to trial in 2023 and now heads to closing arguments in May.

“I think 2024 could be a big year for the enforcers," said Rebecca Allensworth, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School. “But as the U.S. v. Google case illustrates, it’s been slow going."

Here are significant cases courts are likely to render judgments on this year.

Google defends its search dominance

The Justice Department made headlines in 2023 by going to trial on claims that Google’s search engine is an unlawful monopoly. It could be late 2024 before there is a verdict.

When the nonjury trial ended in November after two months of testimony, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta said he had “no idea" how he was going to rule on the question at the heart of the case: whether Google, which answers about 90% of all internet search queries worldwide, cemented its monopoly through unlawful agreements that make its search engine the default on Apple devices and other products.

Mehta has scheduled closing arguments for early May. If he rules against Google, he will oversee a separate proceeding to determine how to restore competition in the search marketplace. Under U.S. antitrust laws, the judge could force Google to sell off parts of its business. But that approach is unlikely in this case, where there isn’t a corporate merger being challenged, some legal experts have said.

Google has argued that its search engine dominates because it is a superior product that yields the most relevant search results. Its lawyers have happily pointed out that the top search query on Bing is the word “Google."

DOJ takes on the ‘ad tech’ market

Google is also preparing for a trial early in 2024 over claims it is an illegal monopolist in the market for brokering ads on the internet.

The Justice Department and a group of state attorneys general brought that case in January 2023. It is being heard in the Eastern District of Virginia, known as a “rocket docket" because of its relatively quick timetable for bringing cases to trial.

“Have your running shoes on," U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema in Alexandria, Va., told lawyers for both sides. She scheduled a pretrial conference for Jan. 18—six months earlier than the parties had suggested—and said she would then announce a trial date, which could be as early as March.

The Justice Department asked the court to unwind Google’s “anticompetitive acquisitions," such as its 2008 purchase of ad-serving company DoubleClick, and has called for the divestiture of its ad exchange.

Google lost an early bid to dismiss the case in March 2023, when Brinkema said the Justice Department’s lawsuit was sufficiently detailed to proceed.

Google also lost a bid to disqualify the Justice Department’s antitrust chief, Jonathan Kanter, from leading the ad-tech case based on his prior work in private practice for Google critics, including Yelp.

Kanter has been one of Google’s main legal foes for nearly 15 years, a leader of a movement that sees big technology companies including Google, Amazon and Meta as monopolists in the tradition of the 19th-century railroad and oil companies that inspired the original antitrust laws.

The FTC and Meta square off

If the Federal Trade Commission gets its way, this could be the year of judgment for a major antitrust case against Meta Platforms. The FTC brought the case in December 2020, during the final weeks of the Trump administration.

The FTC, which shares responsibility for enforcing antitrust laws with the Justice Department, alleges Meta, formerly known as Facebook, unlawfully sought to suppress competition by buying up potential rivals such as the messaging platform WhatsApp and image-sharing app Instagram. Meta has said those were procompetitive deals that benefited consumers.

The case has moved slowly. In June 2021, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg dismissed the complaint originally filed under the Trump administration, saying the FTC hadn’t sufficiently backed up its allegation that Meta has monopoly power. After the agency beefed up and refiled the case, the judge said the agency could begin deposing witnesses.

But when the FTC in December asked Boasberg to push the litigation forward, Meta’s lawyers countered that the case is “nowhere near trial."

“After delaying nearly a decade to challenge historical acquisitions that the agency reviewed in 2012 and 2014, the FTC has no basis to claim that this case is now urgent," Meta’s lawyers said.

While the case predates FTC Chair Lina Khan’s tenure, it will help define her legacy. Both before and since she took the post in 2021, Khan has argued in favor of blocking more deals, aggressively attacking monopolistic practices and potentially breaking up some of America’s largest companies, particularly in Big Tech.

Meta has said Khan is biased, and sought to block her involvement in a different FTC case relating to Meta’s acquisition of the virtual-reality firm Within Unlimited. In that case, a federal judge denied the FTC’s request for an injunction halting the acquisition.

That decision, while a setback for the FTC, included some legal analysis that could help the agency bring similar cases involving nascent markets.

Khan enters 2024 with a mixed record in court fights. In July, a federal judge ruled against the FTC and allowed Microsoft to go ahead with its $75 billion purchase of videogaming company Activision Blizzard.

But in December, a federal appeals court agreed with the FTC that Illumina’s purchase of cancer-test developer Grail was anticompetitive, prompting the San Diego-based company to pursue what its CEO called an “expeditious divestiture" of Grail by the middle of 2024. And on the last business day of 2023, a judge blocked healthcare data provider IQVIA from buying the owner of pharmaceutical ad-technology company DeepIntent, agreeing with the FTC that there was “a reasonable probability that the proposed acquisition will substantially impair competition in the relevant market."

Those rulings don’t mean that Khan and Kanter will succeed in persuading more courts to buy in this year to their broader take on antitrust law. “It’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint," Vanderbilt’s Allensworth said.

Write to Jan Wolfe at jan.wolfe@wsj.com

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