OAKLAND, Calif. – When Sundar Pichai succeeded Larry Page as head of Google's parent company in December, Sundar Pichai was handed a number of issues: Shareholders had sued Alphabet over large financial packages alleged against executives suspected of wrongdoing . An admired office culture was frayed. Above all, the cartel authorities circled.
On Tuesday, the Justice Department accused Google of "being a monopoly gatekeeper of the Internet" using anti-competitive tactics to protect and strengthen its dominant influence over web search and search advertising.
Google, which has made tremendous profits from a recession, a pandemic, and previous investigations by government regulators on five continents, is now facing the first truly existential crisis in its 22-year history.
The company's founders, Mr. Page and Sergey Brin, left the defense to the quiet Mr. Pichai, who has worked his way up over 16 years and has a reputation for being more of a conscientious caretaker than a passionate entrepreneur.
Mr. Pichai, a former product manager, seems an unlikely candidate to lead his company's battle with the federal government. But if the history of the tech industry with antitrust enforcement is a lesson, a janitor who has reluctantly stepped into the spotlight may be preferable to a charismatic leader who was born to do it.
It is expected that 48-year-old Pichai will assert – as has been the case for some time – that the company is not a monopoly, even though it has a global market share of 92 percent in Internet research. Google is good for the country, the company said, and was a humble economic engine – not a predatory job killer.
"He has to do as an individual trying to do what's right not just for his business but for society," said Paul Vaaler, professor of economics and law at the University of Minnesota. "If he comes off as evasive, irritable and a smart guy, it'll be a killer in the court and the court of public opinion."
Google declined to make Mr. Pichai available for an interview. In an email to staff on Tuesday, he urged Google employees to continue to focus on their work so that users can keep using their products, not because they have to, but because they want to.
"The exam is nothing new to Google and we look forward to presenting our case," Pichai wrote. "I've been asked by googlers how they can help and my answer is simple: keep doing what you are doing."
Few executives have faced such a challenge, and tech industry's best-known personalities have collapsed under the influence of antitrust scrutiny.
Bill Gates, who was CEO of Microsoft in the last major judicial cartel case by the Justice Department two decades ago, appeared combative and evasive when it came to deposits and confirmed the view that the company was a bully who was winning at all costs. Mr Gates said last year that the lawsuit was such a "distraction" that he "screwed up" the transition to cellphone software and ceded the market to Google.
Mr. Page looked at the upcoming antitrust scrutiny with distancing and spent his time on futuristic technology projects rather than partnering with lawyers. Even when the European Union fined Google three times for anti-competitive practices, Mr Page barely raised the issue publicly.
During a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Justice Department officials refused to disclose whether they spoke to Mr. Page during the investigation.
In its complaint, the Department of Justice, along with eleven states, stated that Google had eliminated competition in the search market by entering into agreements with cell phone manufacturers such as Apple and wireless carriers to prevent competitors from competing effectively.
"It is time for American consumers, advertisers and all businesses now dependent on the internet economy to stop Google's anticompetitive behavior and restore competition," the complaint read.
Google said the case was "deeply flawed" and that the Justice Department was relying on "dubious antitrust arguments".
Google is also the target of an antitrust investigation by attorneys general into advertising technology and web search. And Europe continues to scrutinize the company for its data collection since 2017, even after the three fines, which total nearly $ 10 billion.
Standing by Mr. Pichai's side are senior executives who also tend to hit an accommodating tone. He's surrounded himself with other serious, buttoned career google managers who bring a lot of boredom to the table.
The main person handling the case is Kent Walker, Chief Legal Officer and Head of Global Affairs at Google. Although Mr. Walker, who served as US Assistant Attorney at the Department of Justice and joined Google in 2006, oversees many of the company's most chaotic problems, he rarely makes headlines – evidence, as current and former colleagues have said, of his legal pragmatism.
Google has appointed Halimah DeLaine Prado as its new General Counsel. A 14-year veteran of the company's legal department, Ms. Prado most recently served as vice president of the global team that advised Google on products including advertising, cloud computing, search, YouTube and hardware. Ms. Prado has no antitrust background, but has been with Google since 2006 and is now well versed in competition law.
The company is expected to rely heavily on its high-priced law firms to help tackle the battle, including Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a top Silicon Valley law firm, and Williams & Connolly, who have defended Google on other antitrust cases.
Wilson Sonsini has represented Google from the start and helped defend itself in a Federal Trade Commission investigation into its search business. In 2013 the agency decided not to charge any fees.
Regardless of the legal argument for pursuing Google as a monopoly, the case can affect public perception of the company long after it is resolved.
So far, Google's public stance has been a shrug. Mr. Pichai has said that antitrust scrutiny is nothing new and that the company rather welcomes looking at its business practices. Google has argued that it competes in rapidly changing markets and that its dominance can quickly fade as new competitors emerge.
"Google operates in highly competitive and dynamic global markets where prices are free or falling and products are constantly improving," said Pichai in his opening address to an anti-trust committee in July. "Google's continued success is not guaranteed."
Mr. Pichai is familiar with the machinations of antitrust proceedings. As Vice President of Product Management in 2009, he campaigned for European competition authorities to take action on Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser.
"We are confident that more competition in this area will lead to more innovation on the web and a better user experience for people around the world," Pichai wrote in a blog post at the time. This is what search rivals say about Google today.
But shortly after he became Google's managing director in 2015, Mr. Pichai showed his tendency towards pragmatism when he buried the hatchet at Microsoft. The two companies agreed not to complain to the regulatory authorities anymore.
Early in his tenure at Google, Mr Pichai was reluctant to raise his case in Washington – a job that one of his predecessors, Eric Schmidt, enjoyed. A major contributor to democratic politics, Mr. Schmidt was a frequent visitor to the White House during the Obama presidency and was a member of the President's Advisory Council on Science and Technology.
In 2018, Google declined to send Mr. Pichai to testify at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Disgruntled senators gave the company representative a free seat alongside executives from Facebook and Twitter. (Mr. Page was also invited to testify, but company employees were never expected to do so.)
Since then, Mr. Pichai has made frequent trips to Washington, testifying at other Congressional hearings, and holding meetings with President Trump.
Microsoft's long battle with the government also affects how Google plans to conduct its cartel war. Many Google executives believe Microsoft was too combative towards the Justice Department, which brought the company to a standstill.
For most of the last decade, while Google has been dealing with antitrust investigations in the US and Europe, Google has continued to expand into new businesses, acquiring companies like fitness tracker maker Fitbit last year.
Now the bill for this growth could be due. And whether you like it or not, it was left to Mr. Pichai. Mr. Page, who is a year younger than Mr. Pichai and is worth $ 65 billion according to Forbes, has other interests.
Mr. Pichai "didn't have to deal with anything on this scale," said Michael Cusumano, professor and assistant dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management. “He has to face the government. He has no choice. "