Google remains under EU scrutiny


As the European Commission’s investigation on Google enters its final phase, the US internet search giant remains under close scrutiny from Brussels over a range of other issues, EURACTIV France reports.

During his visit to Paris on 21 February, the EU Commissioner in charge of competition, Joaquín Almunia, discussed the ongoing antitrust investigation against Google.

Even though the Commissioner accepted some of the concessions made by Google to improve the visibility of its competitors on its search pages, the case is not closed, he warned.

“If one of the plaintiffs should discover a flaw in the concessions given by Google, we will of course examine it carefully,” he said.

The investigation over Google’s practices in the online search market started in 2010 after several competitors filed complaints accusing it of highlighting its own services, such as Google Maps, without offering the same visibility to others.

Lengthy procedure

Although Google dominates the market in the US and in the world, its market share in Europe is overwhelming.

In France, 94% of online searches goes through Google, as highlighted by the Comscore institute in its 2013 report on France's Digital Future.

After two attempts, the latest concessions offered by Google on its search results seemed to convince Almunia, but not its rivals. And the procedure leading to a final agreement with Google remains lengthy.

“We have not sent letters [replying to the complaints filed against Google] to the plaintiffs. It will take time because each mail is personalised,” the Commissioner admitted.

“Then, the plaintiffs will discuss with the Commission about the arguments. The procedure will take months,” he said. “It will then be necessary to to transform those commitments into something legally-binding,” Almunia explained.

Plaintiffs do not intend on letting Google get away with its latest concessions, which they see as inefficient. Some are considering taking the matter to the European Court of Justice to make their arguments heard.

Android and Motorola in focus

This is not the only reason for worry at Google, which remains under EU scrutiny on a range of other issues.

Since April 2012, the designer of smartphones and tablets, Motorola Mobility, a former subsidiary of Google, is also under investigation by the EU competition watchdog.

An antitrust investigation was launched concerning patents owned by Motorola in mobile phones, which remain for a large part in the hands of Google. The former subsidiary tried to prevent its competitor, Apple Germany, from using some of its patents, which are essential to the functioning of mobile technologies.

“We will have a decision in a month or two,” the Commissioner said.

As for mobile internet, Google could also face another investigation by Brussels, this time concerning its mobile exploitation system, Android, which dominates the market before Apple iOS or Microsoft’s Windows Phone.

Several of Google’s competitors, including Microsoft, have filed a complaint with the European Commission accusing the US giant of imposing its business practices to smartphones manufacturers at the expense of competing offers.

“There is no open case on the Android file,” the Commissioner tempered, “but we are discussing even though we are not yet at the formal stage of opening the investigation.”

Other concerns

Beyond competition, Google’s practices remain under surveillance in Europe.

“There are many other issues concerning Google, Joaquín Almunia says citing net neutrality, copyright, data protection or the business relations with newspaper publishers.

Personal data protection of internet users is a great concern for the EU, which is working on a broad legislative reform on the matter.

Together with five European counterparts, the French body dedicated to freedom and computers, the Commission nationale de l'informatique et des libertés (CNIL) has for its part started an action against Google and its privacy policy rules in April.

Another battlefront against Google is the corporate taxation of digital companies, which often take advantage of EU disparities by declaring their profits in countries where taxation is lower.

Such tax competition is of particular worry to France, which has campaigned for the implementation of a “Google tax”, so far unsuccessfully.

The European Commission for its part has set up a working group on taxation of internet companies and should submit its conclusions during the first half of 2014.

“We cannot harmonise European legislation,” Almunia admits, “but the fiscal legislation in member states cannot favour certain types of businesses” over others, he added.

In November 2010, the European Commission opened an investigation into Google’s activities in the EU market for internet search, after complaints by rivals that its dominant position was in breach of fair competition and antitrust regulations.

The Commission negotiated a “commitment decision” with Google (also called “Article 9 decision”), demanding

concessions and testing those concessions in market tests and questionnaires involving rival companies. Such a deal must be confirmed by all 28 EU commissioners.

After two unsuccessful bids by Google, the Commission accepted the third proposal of concessions, thus avoiding a legal spat (under the Article 7 procedure). The latter would have lasted for years and potentially lead to a fine on previous breaches of antitrust regulation. Such a fine is set at a maximum of 10% of a company’s one-year revenue on EU-based activities.

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