The European Commission — the EU’s top antitrust authority — has been asking companies that have complained about Google’s behavior for additional information, and for permission to release confidential information in the complaints, according to unnamed sources cited by the Journal.
Legal experts say that such steps by the commission are clear signs that the antitrust authority is on the verge of preparing and filing formal antitrust charges.
Alleged Anti-Competitive Behavior
The EU is focusing on four main areas of alleged antitrust behavior by Google, according to the Journal. First, the commission contends that the company may be skewing search results to favor other Google products. Second, various Web sites have alleged that Google is “scraping” content from search competitors. Third, the terms of its advertising contracts may prohibit dealings with the competitors. And fourth, there are claims by software developers that Google’s contracts intentionally make it difficult to switch their advertising from Google to other companies.
A fifth area of concern, somewhat less well-documented at this point, involves claims that Google exercises tight control over the app marketplace for its Android operating system.
The European Union is particularly concerned about Google’s behavior in the marketplace in light of its overwhelming market share in the search sector. Roughly 90 percent of all Internet searches in the EU go through Google, compared with roughly 75 percent in the United States.
A Long-Running Battle
The investigation by the European Commission into Google’s business practices dates to November 2010, when concerns were first raised about Google’s dominance and its resulting business behavior. Under the leadership of Joaquín Almunia, the previous EU antitrust commissioner, the commission tried three times to reach a settlement with Google, but each effort was unsuccessful.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in mid-February, the new EU antitrust commissioner, Margrethe Vestiger, made it clear that she was moving forward.
“On the Google case, I’m in the process of meeting complainants, not only formal complainants but also with people who have deep insights in the market of search and some of the other features of that part of the digital market,” she said. “And having a much broader overview and having updated the file we have sent out a lot of requests for information and we just had a very quick second wave sent out just last week. Then we can take that specific case further.”
European law makes it easier to launch an antitrust suit against a company such as Google, according to legal experts interviewed by the Wall Street Journal. If charges are filed, Google will have three months to refute the allegations or finally reach a settlement.
It can also request a formal hearing with the commission to present its position. At some point thereafter, the commission will render its decision, which can be appealed to EU courts in Luxembourg. An adverse decision could cost Google up to 10 percent of its annual revenues, which last year totaled $66 billion. Google did not respond to our request for comment on the issue.
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