Google Critics Urge EU Antitrust Action

Google’s antitrust headaches may not be going away anytime soon, if critics of the company have anything to do with it.

A group of 165 companies and industry bodies signed a joint letter to EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager on Thursday, calling on the European Commission to to take a tougher line against Google, Reuters reported.

They allege the search engine giant unfairly favours its own services on its web searches. This latest salvo adds to the pressure on the firm, after the US Department of Justice (DoJ) filed an antitrust lawsuit against Alphabet’s Google division in October.

Antitrust trouble

Google immediately hit back at the DoJ allegation that it abuses its position to maintain an illegal monopoly over search and search advertising.

Google last month called the DoJ lawsuit “deeply flawed” and insisted that people had a choice of using different search engines, and were able to use different products from rival firms.

On this side of the pond, Google has already been sanctioned by the EU, after it issued fines totaling $9.7 billion in the past three years for abusing its market power to favour its shopping comparison service, its Android mobile operating system, and its advertising business.

In 2017 the European Commission had fined Google 2.4bn euros (£2.01bn) after the Commission ruled that Google had thwarted rivals of shopping comparison websites.

Then in July 2018 the European Commission had fined Google the record 4.3 billion euros (£3.83bn) for commercial practices related to its Android mobile operating system.

And then in March 2019 European antitrust regulators once again fined Google 1.49bn euros (£1.3bn) concerning the firm’s AdSense advertising service.

The EC is also investigating its acquisition of Fitbit, and Google is currently appealing all the above penalities.

Joint letter

But now Reuters reported that a joint letter has been sent to EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager on Thursday.

The 165-strong group – which claims to be the largest-ever to write in concert to EU competition chiefs urging action – comprised 135 companies that offer online services plus 30 industry associations.

Signatories to the letter reportedly included long term Google critics Yelp, Expedia, Trivago, Kelkoo, Stepstone and Foundem – whose complaint triggered the EU shopping probe against Google.

The critics allege that Google is giving its own services, such as those for accommodation, travel and jobs, preferential placement in its search results and urging swift action to stop the practice.

“While we compete amongst ourselves for the best consumer experience, there is one common competitor that does not compete fairly – Google,” the letter reportedly said.

“Google gained unjustified advantages through preferentially treating its own services within its general search results pages by displaying various forms of grouped specialised search results (so-called OneBoxes),” it added.

It should be remembered that OneBoxes outline information and images in boxes placed near the top of search results. They are often a key way for local businesses to gain more visibility.

“With this exclusive use of OneBoxes, Google artificially keeps users within its own service and prevents them from visiting competing, more relevant services,” the letter reportedly said.

The group said the Digital Markets Act – new EU tech rules in the pipeline that would prevent dominant online platforms from favouring their own services – would take too long to come into effect.

They urged Vestager to act swiftly to ensure Google gave its rivals equal treatment in search results.

“Many of us may not have the strength and resources to wait until such regulation really takes effect,” they said.

Google response

Google refuted assertions that it unfairly favours its own services. It says that its users are not locked in and that competition to its services is just one click away on the internet.

“People expect Google to give them the most relevant, high quality search results that they can trust,” a Google representative said.

“They do not expect us to preference specific companies or commercial rivals over others, or to stop launching helpful services which create more choice and competition for Europeans.”

Vestager meanwhile is expected to announce a draft law on 2 December, which will need input from EU countries and the European Parliament before it can become a binding law in the European Union.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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