By Brent Kendall 

WASHINGTON -- The federal judge presiding over the Justice Department's antitrust case against Google held a first scheduling hearing Friday, with the search giant arguing it needs quick access to the government's investigation files before it can decide on its next steps in litigation.

The department sued Google last week, taking aim at the heart of the company's search business. It alleges Google is using exclusionary deals and other tactics to prevent anyone from challenging its dominance in search and search advertising. Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., denies the allegations and called the government's case misguided.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, in a 45-minute telephone hearing, previewed several preliminary issues on the horizon. The judge said Google's initial written answer to the Justice Department's lawsuit was due in mid-December, but he asked whether the company might first seek to file a motion to dismiss the case instead.

Google lawyer John Schmidtlein of law firm Williams & Connolly said the company hadn't yet made a decision on that question but would be able to give the judge a better idea of its plans by Nov. 13.

Mr. Schmidtlein said Google was eager to get several preliminary issues addressed, most importantly obtaining access to the material the Justice Department generated during its 16-month investigation that led to the lawsuit.

"We are very anxious and ready and willing to move this case expeditiously," he said. "We look forward to defending this case to the fullest. And we want access to that material so we can begin that process as soon as possible."

Justice Department lawyer Ken Dintzer, who is leading the government's litigation team, said there were important issues to work out on the exchange of initial information, including establishing rules that would limit Google's access to competitively sensitive materials that other companies provided in the government's probe.

Judge Mehta expressed confidence that effective protective measures would be put in place, and he indicated he would like the matter resolved quickly. "If the defendant is prepared to move forward, then certainly the government ought to be ready to move forward as well" in disclosing evidence it has acquired, he said.

Mr. Dintzer said the Justice Department had information requests of its own, including a "refresh" of data it received from Google, which he said didn't include 2020 material. Some significant data Google handed over also was coded in a way that made it impossible for the department to use, he said.

Judge Mehta asked Mr. Dintzer whether the government was contemplating filing an amended lawsuit that would expand its antitrust allegations, a question that has been the subject of speculation among legal and tech industry observers since the announcement of the Justice Department's lawsuit last week.

"At this time we have no intention of amending the complaint," Mr. Dintzer responded.

The Justice Department lawyer, responding to other questions from the judge, also said he couldn't yet say whether more state attorneys general may seek to join the case.

A group of 11 state attorneys general, all Republicans, have joined the department so far. Other states are still considering their own cases related to Google's search practices.

Near the end of the hearing, Judge Mehta said he needed to make some personal disclosures at the outset of the litigation. The judge said he has a cousin who works as an engineer at Google and a close friend was a former Google executive in India. "I don't think either of these are terribly significant, but I want to make sure that everybody is aware," he said.

The judge set a next status conference for Nov. 18. Friday's discussions involved only the most preliminary matters in the case. Other pretrial matters could take many months to resolve.

Judge Mehta said all proceedings in the case would remain virtual for the foreseeable future. The parties for now won't be called to court in person unless there is a "pressing reason" to do so, he said.

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 30, 2020 13:38 ET (17:38 GMT)

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