Google Faces Prospect of Huge Fine as EU Antitrust Probe Nears End

The European Commission is reportedly close to completing an antitrust investigation of alleged anti-competitive business practices involving Google Shopping.

Google antitrust

Antitrust authorities in Europe appear to be on the verge of slapping Google with what could potentially be a massive fine over the company's alleged anticompetitive business practices.

Reuters quoted unnamed sources as saying the European Commission has nearly completed its investigation into complaints that Google is using its search engine dominance to favor its own shopping service over that of others.

EU regulators have apparently decided that Google is indeed abusing its position and have decided to punish the search giant with a hefty fine, Reuters said citing information from two individuals it described as being close to the investigation.

In an email, Google said it would not comment on reports about the impending EU decision.

EU competition laws currently allow for fines of up to 10 percent of total revenues against organizations that are found to have indulged in anti-competitive practices of the sort alleged against Google.  Based on Google's worldwide revenues of nearly $90 billion last year, that means—in theory at least—the company could face a fine as high as $9 billion.

The case against Google involves complaints from numerous ad aggregation sites about the manner in which the company displays search results on Google Shopping.

Many have claimed that Google's practice of highlighting paid ads in its search results over organic—and often more relevant results—has siphoned traffic away from their own comparison shopping sites.

Google has rejected the complaints noting what it has described as the robust competition in the online shopping space. The company has said it's shopping service results are designed to provide more relevant information for shoppers.

Google faces similar EU antitrust investigations on two other fronts. EU regulators are currently investigating Google for its allegedly anticompetitive Android bundling practices and also business practices relating to the company's AdSense advertising platform. The EU antitrust investigations are a manifestation of what appears to be a growing unease over Google's market power on several fronts.

In a blog, Scot Cleland, a former Deputy U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy during the George H.W. Bush Administration predicted the EU antitrust verdict could prove a tipping point for Google and its parent Alphabet.

"It will effectively divide Google’s history into the two-decade-long, Google pre-monopoly-enforcement era, from the impending Google monopoly-enforcement era, that will likely last a decade plus," Cleland said citing the long antitrust enforcement proceedings initiated against Microsoft in 1998.

A negative verdict will impact Google's attempt to portray itself as an honest broker of the world's information, said Cleland, who is a frequent critic of Google's business practices and has testified before Congress on the company's privacy practices.

The company "will go from being able to legitimately claim publicly that it has done nothing wrong and is innocent of any antitrust charges against it, to officially being found guilty of abusing its search monopoly," he said.

Meanwhile, in a completely separate development that could have a big impact on Google, British telecommunications firm Vodafone has apparently decided to stop relying on Google—and Facebook's—automated online ad placement technology for its ads.

Concerned over its ads mistakenly appearing on hate group sites and fake news sites, Vodafone is working on developing a 'whitelist' of websites that the likes of Google and Facebook will be required to use to place Vodafone ads.

The use of such a whitelist for ad placement would mark a departure from Google's usual practice of relying mostly on algorithms to automatically identify and blacklist sites that run afoul of the company's standards for website content.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.