The EU’s main consumer organisation joined the antitrust case against Google on Monday (March 31), accusing the tech giant of misleading users with biased search results.
“Users are given the impression their searches are neutrally decided and this problem is exacerbated in price comparison searches. That is why we are becoming formally involved in this process,” said the BEUC’s director Monique Goyens in a statement where she announced that the consumer organisation applied to be a formal complainant in the ongoing case.
To date, around 20 companies have presented their complaints to the European Commission, over what they consider abuses of its dominant position, by the worldwide leader in online search.
Microsoft is one of the complainants, together with a disparate group, comprising online travel agencies such as Expedia and Tripadvisor, the network of major EU cities, Eurocities, online map services such as Streetmaps and Hot Map, and ecommerce firms such as Deal du Jour.
Several legal accusations were made against Google search practices. The European Commission had already opened an investigation of four of them, in 2010.
The most controversial issue concerns how Google displays an increasing number of paid links in search queries for subjects such as travel, hotels and shopping.
These ads, or price comparison services, are gradually pushing down neutral search results, and are produced by algorithms based on website reputation, and traffic.
Competitors argue that Google consistently favours its own services, damaging the business of competitors. Moreover, the commitments proposed by the US-based firm, and provisionally accepted by the EU Commission last February, are accused of worsening the situation.
FairSearch, a lobbying group including some of the complainants in the Google case, claims that the proposed remedies would earn Google one billion extra euros per year.
On the other hand, the proposed commitments would further damage competitors, to the point that the remedies are said to be “worse than (doing) nothing”.
From antitrust to consumer case?
Consumers have long expressed their concerns about Google practices, but have so far fallen short of taking formal action against the search engine leader.
Now, the BEUC’s move may open a new front in the Google case, presenting it not only as an issue of competition, but also as a broader consumer issue.
The BEUC criticized the provisional decision of Antitrust Commissioner Joaquin Almunia, in agreeing to a settlement based on Google’s latest offers.
“European consumers deserve a better outcome. The remedies currently proposed by Google do not meet users’ legitimate expectations,” reads the BEUC statement issued Monday (31 March).
“The placement of three rival services beside Google’s preferred results is not yet merit-based, and so they are not neutral. Such stacking will lead to broader problems for the market further down the line. This kind of online real estate does not come cheap, so affording Google too much discretion to decide who is a ‘rival service’ is weighted in favour of those with the greatest commercial clout,” adds the BEUC.
Almunia’s position seems unaffected by such pressure. In a recent hearing in the European Parliament, he warned against “acute lobbying” against his provisional decision in the Google case (see EURACTIV).
The Commissioner confirmed that his announced settlement is the most likely to be eventually adopted by September, when the case is expected to be closed.
However, divisions within the Commission are becoming wider. Several commissioners were vocal in their opposition to Almunia’s provisional decision.
Rumors of pushing Google to offer more concessions are spreading in Brussels. And other options, beyond competition remedies, are also under consideration.
“We need to explore how to meet consumers’ concerns with other community policies. Maybe other things can be done. We need to explore every option,” said a Commission source, obviously not from the competition department.
Possible options include legislative proposals, which would take too long to be operative, though. But they may also be part of a wider strategy to increase pressure on Google to improve its settlement offer.
Google had no new comment to make after the BEUC announcement.