Sundar Pichai’s US v. Google testimony was about the past, and the search defaults

You might not expect an antitrust trial focused on Google’s overwhelming dominance in the year 2023 to spend a lot of time talking about Internet Explorer circa 2005. But you’d be wrong.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai spent a good chunk of Monday in a DC courtroom, testifying as part of the ongoing US v. Google antitrust trial. He stood at a podium instead of sitting (apparently he hurt his back), often with a magnifying glass in his hand, pushing his glasses up on his forehead as he squinted down at a binder full of exhibits. One exhibit proved particularly interesting: a letter from Google’s then-top lawyer David Drummond, sent on July 22nd, 2005, to Microsoft’s then-general counsel Brad Smith. 

Drummond’s letter concerned the launch of Microsoft Internet Explorer 7, the new browser that would have its first beta release five days later. (Not long after, Pichai and a small team would start to work on Google’s own browser, Chrome, which eventually crushed Internet Explorer entirely.) Drummond had a problem with a new feature in IE7: a small search bar off to the right of the browser’s URL bar. By default, Drummond said, anyone who typed in that search bar and hit enter would do a search on MSN. 

Well, sort of. To summarize about 20 minutes of increasingly exasperated back-and-forth between Pichai and US Justice Department lawyer Meagan Bellshaw, here’s how Google saw it: Microsoft planned to “honor” the default search engine setting that users chose in previous versions of IE, but in those previous versions, that setting was hidden and functionally useless. Hardly anyone knew it existed, much less changed it. This, Drummond argued, was an actively user-hostile thing to do. “And since very few users are aware of the auto search feature in previous versions of IE (as even the employees from Microsoft acknowledge),” he wrote, “that original default setting has very seldom been changed to popular search providers that users actually employ, like Google.”

Drummond offered an alternative. Microsoft should offer a choice screen to new IE7 users, he wrote, letting them choose which search engine would be their default in the browser. “Google believes that the search market should remain competitive,” he said.

One way to look at this…