France and Germany Thursday (27 November) called on the European Commission to review competition rules surrounding on-line “web-platforms” – notably search engines such as Google – in order to create “a more level playing field” and encourage European companies into the market.
The move followed a resolution in the European Parliament calling for similar action earlier in the day.
The US search giant is already subject to a separate ongoing investigation being conducted by Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager (see background).
French digital affairs minister Axelle Lemaire and German economic and energy affairs minister Matthias Machnig briefed journalists on the fringes of a transport, telecommunications and energy Council meeting which discussed proposals for European telecoms legislation.
In a joint statement, the pair said their two countries wanted to encourage the Commission further to develop competition law to cope with new challenges from Google and other “web platforms”.
They said that – with only 2% of listed companies in the over-the-top digital sector in European markets being European – the market needed redress.
Search engine dominates market
They also called for more support for the European IT sector, and backed an EU probe into the tax practises of foreign digital giants in Europe.
“Google is the focal point of the market and of public debate. We need a level playing field for IT companies in Europe,” an EU diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity told EURACTIV afterwards.
“If you google some city or street the first thing you get is Google Maps; not [French mapmaker] Michelin or [German] Falk. Let’s say there is an innovative map supplier in the EU, they do not have as great a chance,” the diplomat added.
The Franco-German initiative reflected the Parliamentary motion passed earlier that day in Strasbourg.
MEPs called on member states and the Commission “to prevent any abuse in the marketing of interlinked services by operators of search engines” in a thinly veiled threat to Google’s market leading position in the search market.
The move came in a resolution – approved by 384 votes to 174, with 56 abstentions – demanding the break down of barriers to the growth of the EU’s digital single market and stressing the importance of non-discriminatory online search.
Net neutrality on backburner
MEPs stressed the need to prevent online companies from abusing dominant positions by enforcing EU competition rules and unbundling search engines from other commercial services.
The resolution underlined that “the online search market is of particular importance in ensuring competitive conditions within the digital single market” and welcomed the Commission’s pledges to investigate further the search engines’ practices.
“I think we are all thinking in the same direction. There is no ready-made plan in the drawer to take out and say: ‘That is a solution to the problem.’ We are just at the beginning of the debate,” said the diplomat.
“The idea is to provide a Franco-German thrust to the debate. We wanted to flag up that this is an issue of the utmost interest to our economies. It is time to act for Europe,” said the diplomat.
The Franco-German move emerged from a joint ministerial initiative begun in February this year.
It is unclear to what extent the proposal to reform the competition landscape will be welcomed by other member states.
Another EU diplomat told EURACTIV that although the Italians, occupying the rotating Council presidency, are currently neutral on policy issues.
“Our impression is that when they leave the presidency in January their thinking might go in the same direction [as Germany and France],” the diplomat said.
Meanwhile at the meeting in Brussels, ministers postponed discussion of measures to introduce net neutrality, since member states are unwilling to accept stricter net neutrality provisions demanded by MEPs.
Net Neutrality is the principle of keeping an open internet where data is treated equally, and preventing the development of multi-tiers whereby consumers pay more for higher bandwidth content.
In relation to the Google/competition issue a spokesman for the UK permanent representation in Brussels said it had nothing to add “for now”.
Google had not commented on the developments at time of publication.