Google’s anti-trust troubles in Europe may be starting anew.
The Competition Office at the European Commission, which is responsible for ensuring fair trade practices, is set to formally charge Google on Wednesday with abusing its dominance of Internet search in Europe, the Financial Times reported.
The EU’s Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager will announce plans to serve Google with a formal “statement of objections” listing the complaints against it by various companies in the EU, the Times and several others said, quoting conversations with unnamed sources.
Ricardo Cardoso, a spokesman from Vestager’s office, declined, via email, to comment on the reports. But in comments to eWEEK several weeks ago, Cardoso had indicated that Vestager was updating information on the EU’s ongoing investigation of Google, and taking time to form her own views, before moving ahead.
The EU describes the statement of objections as a formal first step in an antitrust investigation. This is the stage at which the commission informs a company of the complaints against it by other parties and gives it 30 days to respond. The commission then decides whether to pursue a formal antitrust investigation or not based on the responses from the involved parties.
The European Commission is examining whether Google broke EU antitrust laws by using its search engine dominance to favor its own products. Some have accused the company of unfairly preventing them from placing advertisements on rival sites and of stealing their content to promote its own Websites.
Multiple companies, including powerful publishing houses in the EU, have accused Google of using its 90 percent search market share in Europe to stifle competition. They want Vestager’s Competition Office to get the company to change its practices.
Some reports suggested that Google could face fines of up to $6 billion if EU regulators find that company abused antitrust laws in Europe.
Meanwhile, in what appears to be an unrelated development, lawmakers in France are reportedly considering a proposal that would require Google, and presumably other search engine companies, to reveal the secret algorithms they use to rank search engine results.
The goal apparently is to give France’s national telecommunications regulator a way to monitor search engines to ensure that Internet search results are fair and non-discriminatory, the Financial Times reported in a separate story Tuesday.
The French senate looks set to approve the proposal as early as this week, but it will need to be adopted by the lower house of parliament, as well, before it can become law.
Together, the two developments represent a potent set of troubles for Google in Europe.
It’s almost certain Google will resist any EU law that requires it to divulge the secret sauce behind its search engine rankings. But the sentiment and motivations behind the law should be of broader concern to Google.
In the past five years, Google has been the subject of on-again and off-again investigations of its practices by data regulators in the EU. The inquiries have highlighted a lot of angst over the company’s practices. The concerns have prompted calls in Europe for Google’s search engine business to be separated from the rest of its broad-based operations.
So far at least, no formal charges have been filed against Google’s practices in Europe. However, if Tuesday’s reports prove accurate, that could change this week.
Similar complaints prompted the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to launch its own investigation of Google’s business practices about three years ago. But after a 19-month investigation, FTC commissioners decided to drop the inquiry after Google voluntarily agreed to change some of its practices.
A recent report by The Wall Street Journal showed that the commissioners had dropped the inquiry though several FTC staffers had wanted formal antitrust charges brought against Google on a variety of issues.
The Journal’s report has resulted in some recent scrutiny of Google’s relationships with the White House and whether those relationships had any influence on the FTC’s decision to drop its investigation.
It’s unclear if the EU Competition Office’s renewed interest in pursuing Google has anything to with the recent disclosures about the FTC investigation. Google did not respond to requests for comment, either on the reported EU action or on France’s proposed new law.