Eddy Cue, dressed in a dark suit, looked at the monitor in front of him. The screens in the Washington, D.C. courtroom had briefly failed, leaving witnesses with only folders, but now the technology was up and running: It displayed an image of three iPhones, each showing a portion of the setup process. of the telephone. Cue squinted at the screen.
“The resolution on this is terrible,” he said. “You should get a Mac.” That sparked some laughter in an otherwise serious and quiet courtroom. Judge Amit Mehta, presiding over the case, leaned into his microphone and responded: “If Apple would like to make a donation…” That sparked even bigger laughs. Then everyone got back to business.
Cue was on the stand as a witness in United States against Google, the landmark antitrust trial over Google’s search business. Cue is one of the highest-profile witnesses in the case so far, in part because of the deal between Google and Apple, which makes Google the default search engine on all Apple devices and pays Apple billions. of dollars a year, is essential for the United States. The Department of Justice case against Google.
Cue had two messages: Apple believes in protecting the privacy of its users and it also believes in Google. Whether those two statements can be true at the same time became the question of the day.
Apple is in court over something called an Information Services Agreement, or ISA: an agreement that makes Google’s search engine the default for Apple products. The ISA has been in place since 2002, but Cue was responsible for negotiating its current version with Google CEO Sundar Pichai in 2016. In today’s testimony, the Justice Department questioned Cue about the details of the agreement.
When the two sides renegotiated, Cue said on the stand, Apple wanted a larger percentage of the revenue Google earned from Apple users and directed it toward the search engine. Discussion of specific figures was reserved for closed-door court sessions, but Cue wanted Apple to get a higher percentage, while Pichai wanted to keep the deal as it was. They eventually settled on some other number they didn’t tell us in court, and Google has been paying Apple that amount ever since.
“I always felt it was in Google’s best interest and in our best interest to reach an agreement.”
Meagan Bellshaw, a Justice Department attorney, asked Cue if he would have walked away from the deal if the two sides couldn’t agree on a revenue-sharing figure. Cue said he had never considered that option: “I always felt it was in Google’s best interest, and our best interest, to make a deal.” Cue also argued that the deal was more than economical and that Apple never seriously considered switching to another provider or creating its own search product. “There was certainly no valid alternative to Google at the time,” Cue said. He said there aren’t any yet.
That question — whether Apple chose Google because it’s the most lucrative option or the best product — was a key part of Cue’s testimony and, indeed, a key part of the Justice Department’s entire case against Google. The Justice Department is focusing on the deals Google makes (with Apple but also with Samsung, Mozilla and many others) to ensure it is the default search engine on virtually all platforms.
Bellshaw asked Cue a series of questions about the iPhone setup process. Those three screenshots showed the Appearance screen that appears when you first start your iPhone so you can choose font sizes; the location tracking message that appears when you open Maps; and the App Tracking Transparency popup that tells you when an app wants to collect your data. Cue objected to all of these things being considered part of the setup, but Bellshaw’s point was that Apple gives its users a choice over many things, big and small, and that search could be one of them.
“We try to get people up and running as quickly as possible.”
Cue acknowledged that the ISA didn’t allow Apple to offer users a choice of search engines during setup, but he also said he wouldn’t want to do that anyway. “We try to get people up and running as quickly as possible,” he said. “Settings are just critical.” Showing people a bunch of search engines they’ve never heard of would simply be a bad user experience, he argued; Even Cue couldn’t remember the names of some of the alternatives to Google. “We make Google the default search engine,” he said, “because we always thought it was the best. We choose the best one and allow users to change it easily.” (“Easily” is a persistent point of contention in this trial: DuckDuckGo CEO, who testified last week, He stated that “too many steps” are needed. to change.)
As for privacy pop-ups? This is where Bellshaw started harping on how exactly Apple decided that Google had the best product. He asked Cue if Apple believes user privacy is important, to which he responded, “Absolutely.” He then showed a series of emails and slides in which Cue and Apple criticized Google’s privacy policies. Cue readily agreed. “We’ve always thought we had better privacy than Google,” he told Bellshaw. He said that a provision of the ISA with Google was that Google had to allow people to search without signing in and that Apple has done things in Safari and on its platforms to make it difficult for Google or anyone else to track users.
Bellshaw never quite said it, but the Justice Department’s implication seemed to be that, essentially, Google is a threat to privacy and anathema to everything Apple believes is important to its users, but Apple gives it center stage. on his platform because Google pays him very generously. Bellshaw asked Cue to review some of Apple’s financial documents. Isn’t it true that the ISA represents a significant part of Apple’s profits? he asked. Cue said Apple doesn’t see it that way because it doesn’t take into account all the work Apple did to make its platform so attractive that a deal like this could work as well as it does.
After that, the courtroom closed again and Cue’s testimony continued in private. Like so many things in this trial, the star witness was kept secret thanks to complaints and concerns about the disclosure of confidential numbers and corporate secrets. But the questions asked of Cue were the same ones the Justice Department will continue to ask: Is Google really the best search engine, or is it simply the one writing the biggest checks? And if those controls disappeared, what would the search engine market be like? Cue said Apple never really thought about it. But many others have, and the Justice Department will continue to ask.