EC Alleges Google Favors Its Own Search Content

The European Commission has informed Google that it believes the company has violated antitrust rules and "abused" its search dominance by "systematically" favoring its own content -- a comparison shopping product -- in general search results.

The EU sent a Statement of Objections to the company today (April 15), which is is essentially a notification of the allegation, but does not "prejudge the outcome" of the antitrust investigation.

"The Commission's preliminary view is that such conduct infringes EU antitrust rules because it stifles competition and harms consumers," the EU said.

At the same time, the EU is opening an investigation into Google's Android mobile operating system and whether it has similarly abused its "possible" dominant position in the market for operating systems, applications and services for smart phones and devices.

Both stem from an ongoing investigation of Google's practices by the EU.

"The Commission's objective is to apply EU antitrust rules to ensure that companies operating in Europe," said the EU commissioner in charge of competition policy, Margrethe Vestage. "Wherever they may be based, do not artificially deny European consumers as wide a choice as possible or stifle innovation."

"In the case of Google I am concerned that the company has given an unfair advantage to its own comparison shopping service, in breach of EU antitrust rules."

Vestage said Google had the chance to prove the commission wrong or change the way it does business.  

Google has been the subject of complaints about abuse of its search power in this country as well. In 2013, the Federal Trade Commission closed a two-year long investigation into its search and advertising business with a promise to chance some of its business practices but no antitrust prosecution.

The FTC concluded that Google's search rankings, on balance, were to improve consumer experience rather than bias them anti-competitively in favor of Google content and closed the investigation saying Google's conduct did not violate American law that the FTC applies -- the vote was 5-0. Google volunteered to make some changes to that experience, however, including not  disfavoring clients who advertise on other platforms. For example, websites can opt out of specialized search without being demoted in organic searches.

Google had not returned a request for comment on the EU allegation at press time.

“Brusselcrats don’t know a good thing for consumers when they see it — at least, if it’s ‘Made in the USA,’” said Berin Szoka, President of TechFreedom, in a statement. “Android is the most open operating system on the market today, allowing users to install an endless variety of apps, even through alternative app stores not approved by Google. This new investigation sounds like a continuation of the Franco-German obsession with ‘replacing’ Google’ with European alternatives, which recently led the EU Parliament to call for Google’s breakup — without actually waiting for any legal charges. Antitrust law shouldn’t be a tool for protectionism — or for technocrats to second-guess the preferences of European consumers.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.