By Brian Fung, CNN
Washington (CNN) — Google will not have to face allegations by dozens of states that the tech giant’s design of its search results page has harmed rivals, such as Yelp or Expedia, a federal judge ruled in an opinion unsealed Friday, just weeks before the closely watched antitrust case is set to go to trial.
The summary judgment ruling by Judge Amit Mehta of the US District Court for the District of Columbia effectively narrows the range of claims Google will have to defend when the case goes to trial in mid-September.
Mehta’s decision is an 11th-hour victory for Google in a case brought jointly by state attorneys general and the federal government. The Justice Department sued the company during the Trump administration over its dominant position in online search. The lawsuit by the states, which followed two months later, had been consolidated with the US government’s case.
Despite tossing out some of the key claims by states, Mehta’s opinion allows some of the most significant claims to proceed, including allegations that Google (GOOGL) has harmed competition through the use of “exclusive” contracts with its Android operating system and search distribution partners.
The upcoming courtroom showdown, which is set to begin September 12, marks the first case to go to trial in a series of court challenges targeting Google’s far-reaching economic power. The outcome of the trial may be seen as a bellwether for the more assertive antitrust agenda of the Biden administration, which has led to cases against other tech giants including Microsoft (MSFT) and Facebook-parent Meta.
State attorneys general and federal antitrust officials at the Justice Department have argued in the case that Google harms competition through its deals with wireless carriers as well as browser and smartphone companies that make Google Search the default or exclusive search provider available to consumers.
The lawsuit has also alleged that Google’s Android deals with device makers are anticompetitive, because they require smartphone companies to pre-install other Google-owned apps, such as Gmail, Chrome or Maps.
For years, Google opponents including Yelp have argued that Google has harmed competition by prioritizing its own apps and services in search results over web pages, links, reviews and other content from third-party sites. Google has argued that its search page designs provide consumers with a better overall search product.
In his opinion, Mehta said the states “have not shown that there is a genuine dispute of material fact that would warrant a trial to determine whether Google’s treatment” of results from Expedia, Booking.com and other so-called “specialized verticals” is anticompetitive.
But he added that there is still substantial disagreement over how harmful Google’s Android and browser agreements may be.
The effects of being the default search provider on browsers and smartphones “is a hotly disputed issue in this case,” Mehta wrote. “It is best to await a trial to determine whether, as a matter of actual market reality, Google’s position as the default search engine across multiple browsers is a form of exclusionary conduct.”
In a statement, Google said it appreciated the court’s decision.
“We look forward to showing at trial that promoting and distributing our services is both legal and pro-competitive,” said Kent Walker, Google’s president of global affairs.
The Justice Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, who led the charge on the states’ initial lawsuit, said he was pleased the case will still proceed to trial.
“We will continue to evaluate how to best press forward and establish Google’s pattern of illegal conduct that harms consumers and competition,” Weiser said in a statement.
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