Google's antitrust problems in Europe may be heating up again.
The Competition Office at the European Commission, which oversees industry trade practices, is apparently getting ready to file formal antitrust charges against the Internet giant, claiming that Google is abusing its dominant market position to stifle competition.
It has asked multiple companies that have filed private complaints against Google to make their submissions public, according to reports in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other outlets.
Among the companies that have filed such complaints are several major German and French publishing groups that have claimed Google has too much control over how Europeans access online content, the Times said in its report.
Requests for permission to publish information from private complaints typically happen just before formal charges are filed against a company, Quartz reported, citing a spokesman from a group representing consumer organizations in the European Union. The complaints are listed in a formal "statement of objections"; Google will then have 30 days to respond.
According to an official EU description, a statement of objections is a formal step in the European Commission's investigations into suspected violations of antitrust laws. The document notifies alleged violators in writing of the complaints against them and provides them with an opportunity to respond in like manner or to ask for an oral hearing in front of the Commission's representatives.
An EU spokeswoman contacted for this story declined to comment on the media reports, citing the European Commission's policy of not commenting on ongoing antitrust investigations. Google did not respond to a request for comment.
However, in recent comments to eWEEK, a spokesman for Margrethe Vestager, the EU's new antitrust chief, indicated that the Competition Office is reviewing information related to its ongoing investigation of Google.
"[Vestager] is taking the necessary time to update information in the files and form her own view before deciding on next steps," he had noted.
It's unclear if the EU's allegedly renewed interest in picking up the Google antitrust matter after months of letting it lie mostly dormant has anything to do with the recent publication of a hitherto unknown U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) document. The document, accidentally released to The Wall Street Journal in response to an open-records request, showed that several FTC staffers wanted to bring antitrust charges against Google two years ago.
The charges never materialized, and FTC commissioners eventually dropped a 19-month investigation of Google's practices after the company voluntarily agreed to make changes to how it handled search results and other issues. The FTC's handling of the matter has come under some scrutiny, particularly after the Journal ran another report suggesting that Google's close ties to the White House may have helped it get off the hook in the FTC investigation. Google itself has downplayed the reports and has insisted that its practices have not hurt rivals.
The EU's investigation of Google's business practices goes back at least five years. Over that time, data regulators have looked into complaints that Google has used its search engine dominance to give preferential treatment to its own products and those of its advertisers in search engine results. They have also examined whether Google has unfairly prevented advertisers from placing competing ads on their Websites.
In addition, Google has butted heads with EU regulators more recently on a number of other issues. Regulators in some EU countries, for instance, want the company to pay a copyright fee for the snippets of text that it uses to anchor news stories on Google News. Google last year pulled the plug on its Google News service in Spain after regulators there refused to back off their demand that search engine companies such as Google pay such royalties.
The company has also angered regulators in Europe with its stance on the EU right-to-be-forgotten mandate that requires search engine companies to honor requests from individuals to remove search engine links to stories that are inaccurate or incomplete. Google has agreed to remove such links only for users within the EU, refusing to remove them from its main Google.com site, a stance that regulators in Europe say defeats the intent of the original mandate.
Ezra Gottheil, a principal analyst at Technology Business Research, said Google's antitrust issues in Europe could have an impact on profitability, but will do little to slow the company down.
The recent disclosures about the FTC's investigation of the company show Google knows what to do to stay clear of the regulatory ax, he said. "It shows they have played it exactly the way they wanted, which is to stay just this side of the law."