A European lawmaker has called on EU regulators to bring formal antitrust charges against Google after a document surfaced this week showing that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission had harbored strong concerns about the company’s business practices two years ago.
The new evidence is crucial and comes at a particularly appropriate time, Ramon Tremosa i Balcells, a member of the European Parliament for Spain and a lawmaker from the country’s Catalonia region, told The New York Times in calling for formal action against Google.
Tremosa is among several European lawmakers who have previously said that it might become necessary to split Google’s search business from the rest of the company to ensure fair competition in the search services space. The calls have caused concern in the United States about a growing politicization of a wide-ranging EU antitrust investigation of Google.
But the FTC document shows that the investigation is not a “protectionist EU war against a U.S. company,” The Times quoted Tremosa as saying.
In response to a question from eWEEK on whether the leaked FTC report would have an impact on the EU’s investigation of Google, a spokesman said the EU’s new antitrust chief, Margrethe Vestager, is still deciding on the next steps.
“The EU’s antitrust investigation into Google’s business practices [focuses on] what have been identified as potential competition issues in the European markets,” said Ricardo Cardoso, spokesman at the EU Competition Office, in an email.
“As Commissioner Vestager has said a number of times, to take the Google investigation forward and get it right, she is taking the necessary time to update information in the files and form her own view, before deciding on next steps,” he said.
“It is very important that the application of competition law in individual cases remains independent from politics and that antitrust procedures are not put into question,” Cardoso said.
An FTC report obtained by The Wall Street Journal in response to an open records request showed that staff at the agency wanted to sue the company for antitrust violations two years ago.
Though the FTC’s commissioners in January 2013 had unanimously agreed to drop a 19-month investigation of Google after the company voluntarily agreed to change some of its business practices, staffers themselves had wanted tougher action.
The FTC report showed that officials at the agency thought that Google had used its monopoly position in ways that hurt consumers and its competition. Even though no charges were brought against Google, FTC officials had actually recommended that it be sued for anti-competitive behavior on three separate issues.
One of them pertained to Google allegedly taking content from rival Websites to improve its own. The other had to do with the company’s practice of restricting Websites that published its search results from working with rivals. The third involved Google’s restrictions on the ability of advertisers to use data gathered from Google’s ad platforms.
The FTC also highlighted what it felt was Google’s abuses of its dominant position in the search engine market to hurt rivals. But the agency stopped short of recommending an antitrust lawsuit over Google’s search business.
“Many advocates, antitrust experts and competitors have long felt that the FTC’s failure to sue Google on antitrust grounds made no sense,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.
The document obtained by The Journal has fully confirmed such fears, he said. “There was ample evidence to begin legal action” against Google, he said. “The documents reveal that FTC staff wanted to go to court, which was overruled by the commissioners.”
The sentiments expressed by FTC staffers in the leaked report make it important that the commission make public its complete record on the Google antitrust investigation, Chester said. “It has helped make the EU’s current investigation of Google more important, and will undoubtedly place new pressure on their regulators to do what our FTC failed to address.”
Google itself, meanwhile, has downplayed the contents of the FTC report and noted that none of the concerns about rivals being hurt by its anti-competitive behavior has come true.
In an emailed statement, Kent Walker, Google senior vice president and general counsel, said Thursday that consumers have more choice than ever before with reference to search and other online services. Competitors such as Yelp and TripAdvisor that were referenced in the FTC report are thriving, he wrote, pointing to their current market position and growth since the FTC dropped its investigation two years ago.