Europe plots renewed antitrust fight against Google (Wired UK)

A storm is brewing at the European Commission...
A storm is brewing at the European Commission…

The European Commission is reportedly preparing to launch antitrust charges against Google. If the move goes ahead, it will be the latest twist in an ongoing battle against the search giant’s market dominance that has lasted five years.

Sources have revealed to the Wall Street Journal that the Commission has been seeking permission from shopping and travel companies to make public previously confidential complaints. The paper reports that complainants were approached at the end of February and given days to respond. A lawyer representing one of Google’s rivals told the WSJ the move has all the hallmarks of an imminent antitrust charge in the making. 

Google’s search market share is still overwhelmingly dominant, at more than 90 percent in Europe. Meanwhile European Commission’s investigations into Google’s search practices have been developing gradually since 2010, initially opened by Commission antitrust chief Joaquin Almunia. As the investigation progressed over the years, several key points of contention came to the fore: how Google links to and prioritises its own services over competitors’, how it copied content from other search companies, claims it restricted competitors from advertising using Google adverts, and restricted the transfer of ad campaign data to rival platforms. 

Google has spent the past few years routinely batting away attempts by the Commission to leave it with a multi-billion-euros fine, and by publishing a series of modified concessions, it hoped recently to quell the storm. The search giant appeared to near a settlement with the European Commission in February 2014. However, by September 2014 — after resoundingly negative feedback about the concessions from affected parties — it reopened the antitrust investigation and simultaneously threatened to open a separate case directed at Google’s Android operating system. It could be that some of the material the Commission is attempting to now make public relates to that negative feedback from complainants. In September of last year, Almunia told Bloomberg TV: “some complainants have introduced new arguments, new data, new considerations so we now need to analyse this and to see if we can find solutions.”

In November the European Parliament voted, in a round-about way, to break up Google’s businesses. The vote related to the “unbundling of search engines from other commercial services”. The move was a political one, given Parliament can only make recommendations — the Commission is the body that has the power to put decisions into action.

Either way, the April 2 revelation in the WSJ is a sign that the antitrust investigation is not going away. Despite routine moves by Google to make concessions, the same issues brought up several years ago by the Commission still remain on the table, unresolved.

One thing has changed, however; Margrethe Vestager has taken over from Almunia as antitrust chief. In November she said she would “need some time to decide on the next steps”, but it’s unlikely another five years of failed settlements is in her plans. Speaking at an event in March, she said: “It’s very important not to make a habit out of settlements. They are much more quick and much more smooth and everyone can move on, but still you need occasion to develop [case law] and only our judges and going to court can do that.” That is not to say Google will not put forward a settlement, rather than battle it out in arguments, if an antitrust charge is indeed brought by the Commission.

Law researcher from the University of Cambridge and Guardian tech policy advisor Julia Powles tells that unlike her “business-friendly” predecessor, Vestager, “is much more willing to pursue formal action, in order to set a precedent”. 

“She is focusing particularly on the search manipulation dimension on the case, but there are many complainants and many nuances to their various claims. In particular, there are huge issues in relation to the fenced data sets that Google holds as a result of direct agreements with sources, as well as projects that it has pursued in the borderlands of the law and subsequently back-justified, like Google Books.”

It’s these issues, Powles argues, that confirm the search giant’s dominance and make it virtually impossible to compete with. But can competition law in Europe really undo this state of play? “It is part of the picture, but certainly not the whole,” says Powles. “If the European Commission was really robust, it would be looking at the broad future of data, indexing, search, analytics, communal resources and individual autonomy — and asking deep and probing questions about how it wants to treat data as the core asset of the information economy: who owns it, who can do what with it, and how should it be regulated.” has approached Google for comment, and will update this story if we hear back.

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2 April 2015 | 9:47 am – Source:


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