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The Google Trial’s Dangerous Secrecy

During the largest antitrust trial of the modern internet era, which pitted Google against the US Department of Justice, the tech company convinced the court to limit transparency and public access to information. This constrained news coverage of the case and eroded press freedom in the process.

WASHINGTON, DC – The largest antitrust trial of the modern internet era, which wrapped up last month, has pitted the world’s most popular search engine, Google, against the United States Department of Justice (DOJ). The case hearkens back to the DOJ’s landmark lawsuit against Microsoft in the 1990s, but with a critical difference: most of it was held behind closed doors. This unprecedented secrecy meant that only journalists and observers who were physically in the courtroom had access – albeit limited – to the proceedings.

Google’s stated mission is to make the world’s information universally accessible. But Google’s actions during the trial, in which it was accused of illegally maintaining a search and advertising monopoly, stand in sharp contrast to that credo. They also set a dangerous precedent: a private company, in an effort to protect its core business and reputation, persuaded a court to limit transparency and public access to information, eroding press freedom and constraining news coverage of the trial in the US and abroad.

From the start, Google went to great lengths to keep as much information as possible away from the public. The company successfully objected to the court providing a live audio feed of the proceedings and managed to convince the judge to sequester key witnesses’ testimony, arguing that trade secrets could be revealed in open court. As the trial wound down, Google also challenged the DOJ’s posting of evidence on its website, which led to the material’s removal for a full week. The New York Times, with the support of other publications, filed a motion demanding that the court give reporters access to admitted trial exhibits.