EU Ready to Turn the Heat on Google

EU’s competition regulator is taking preliminary steps for making a move against Google Inc. in the next couple of weeks. They dictate that the stage is being set for charges against the search engine giant in an investigation that goes back five years, but has sparked a political firestorm and has been stalled several times. The top antitrust authority of the European Union, the European Commission has been questioning companies that filed a complaint against the US search firm to get their permission to publish some information that had been submitted by them previously in confidence. One of the sources said that some companies that were contacted include travel, shopping and local.

In the opinion of the antitrust experts, the requests give a strong indication that formal antitrust charges may be launched. If the EU does decide to file charges against Google, it will be beginning of one of the highest-profile cases antitrust cases since the lengthy campaign the regulator had initiated about ten years ago against Microsoft Corp. The software giant had hand to pay about $1.8 billion in fines to the bloc through 2012. It is always possible that Google decides to make a settlement.

Even if the EU decides to press charges against the Mountain View, California firm, it can still make a deal for resolving the concerns of the bloc that the companies exploits the dominance it enjoys in the European search market. Along with search, the Commission has also been investigating if content from competitor’s websites is being ‘scraped’ by Google and whether it is unfairly restricting software developers and advertisers who work with the search giant. The European Commission prepared a draft conclusion in March 2013 stated that Google was abusing its dominance in all four areas. Any anticompetitive behavior has been denied by Google.

The general counsel of the firm, Kent Walker, spoke in Berlin last week and pointed out a number of successful Google products including Street View and Google+ in Germany as evidence that the competition law was quite effective. The new antitrust chief of EU, Margrethe Vestager, made several statements that suggested that she preferred formal charges as they offered a legal certainty in competition cases as opposed to negotiation settlements. A person with knowledge of the matter said that Ms. Vestager will move the case forward in a very short time period.

Joaquín Almunia, the former antitrust chief and predecessor of Ms. Vestager had attempted and failed thrice in trying to reach a settlement with Google. The most recent attempt had been made last year. In his opinion, a settlement was a better option than formal charges if they wanted to keep up with the fast-paced internet landscape. Fierce criticism had been directed towards the third failed attempt regarding the proposed deal from various companies including News Corp and Axel Springer SE. They had complained that Google drove users to its own websites through search. There haven’t been any recent settlement negotiations between the Commission and Google.