Google vs EU?

Google vs EU?

Google is undergoing a rough time in the European Union, being pressured on diverse fronts. There’s the famous ECJ ruling, and the polemics surrounding the collecting of data by Street View cars. Some think that the company should be broken up. Others see it as a threat to their sovereignty. But maybe it is all about fear, as admitted by Mathias Döpfner, chief executive of Axel Springer, a German publishing giant, in an open letter to Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman. Some worry that big companies will be disincentive to invest in Europe.

Thus said, what is the fuss now?

Well, actually it is an already an old question…Over the years, Google has been facing increasing criticism regarding its search business’ dominant position in Europe.

Google’s market share in Europe is up to 90%, so there is no doubt that it has a dominant position in the European market. According to settled case law of the CJEU, dominance is a position of economic strength enjoyed by an undertaking which enables it to prevent effective competition being maintained on the relevant market by affording it the power to behave to an appreciable extent independently of its competitors, its customers and ultimately of the consumers.1)See Case 27/76 United Brands Company and United Brands Continentaal BV v Commission [1978] ECR 207, paragraph 65, and Case 85/76 Hoffmann-La Roche & Co. AG v Commission (1979) ECR 461, paragraph 38

It is a well accepted principle that, having reached a dominant position, the concerned undertaking has a special responsibility not to allow its conduct to impair genuine undistorted competition on the market.2)See Case 322/81Michelin, ECR 3461 (1983) paragraph 57

Therefore, a dominant position is not in itself illegal. However, according to article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), if an undertaking exploits this position to eliminate competition, it is considered be an abuse, which is deemed to be an anti-competitive conduct.

One must be well aware that a competitive market is desirable for the competitive quality and price it offers, the choice it allows and the innovation it brings. The ultimate beneficiary of competition is the consumer of a good or a service, i.e., all of us. It might not come as a surprise that less successful competitors might try to reduce the market share of a dominant undertaking in their favour.  That is what competing is all about: to try to be better than your competitors, try to be the best at something. But one should expect that they will try to do so through competition! One should not be wary of a dominant position simply due to to its huge market share or to the amount of power it entails, although it shall not be left unrestrained either. A successful company shall not be ‘punished’ or persecuted for its success. The legitimacy of the dominant undertaking’ activities shall always be accessed according to the consumer’s interests.

Back in 2010, the European Commission opened an antitrust investigation into allegations that Google Inc. has abused a dominant market position, in violation of European Union rules (Article 102 TFEU), following 18 (eighteen) complaints presented by its competitors regarding Google’s online search and search advertising.

In short, despite the four areas of concern raised by European Commission, the focus of the case was Google’s vertical search results and the extent to which it favoured its own specialized search services, reducing the visibility of results from competing sites.

Late February, the European Commission announced (here) a settlement proposal from Google in the context of the ongoing antitrust investigation – the third from Google after the previous two were criticized as not going far enough – which it deemed satisfactory.

In this proposal, Google has committed to visibly display links of the services of three competitors, selected through an objective method, whenever it promotes its own specialized search services on its web page following a search query. Some of these links would require the competitors to pay Google.3)You can better understand the proposal from the screenshots as shown here

This proposal received a strong public backlash, namely, of course, from Google’s competitors, apparently very concerned with the users’ interest which is, as previously mentioned in the text, a valid point, however not as convincing as intended, coming as it comes from less successful competitors.

For instance, the FairSearch group, which Microsoft backs, argued that

[it]requires rivals to pay Google for placement similar to that of Google’s own material, undercutting the ability of other to compete and provide consumer choice. This will be done through an auction mechanism that requires participating companies to hand the vast majority of their profits to Google.

Several French and German publishers and companies, among which Axel Springer, created an initiative called the ‘Open Internet Project’, insisting that the commitments proposed by Google to bring this investigation to an end are not sufficient to safeguard a competitive online market. The claims can be accessed on the group’s website.

In June, the European Commission invited complainants to react to Google’s proposal and received a significant negative feedback from press publishers, pressing the European Commission to reject Google’s proposals and proceed to a formal charge with infringement, stating as follows:

(…) the most prominent areas of any search results pages would be reserved for Google’s own services, independent of their quality, while all rival services have to accept inferior visibility even if they are far more relevant to a search query.

And they added:

The only relevant “commitment” is the addition of three Rival Links’ whenever Google puts links to its own monetized services first. However, in the most relevant commercial areas rivals will have to bid for a Rival Link in an auction and pay Google the highest price for a click. As a result, websites would not be ranked by relevance anymore but primarily according to the price they are willing to pay Google. As a new type of ad, Rival Links are not a concession but a new revenue stream for Google. As rivals could always bid for AdWords-ads, their situation is not improved.

No one can blame the settlement’s critics for any lack of coherence as these reactions are in line with those of lead complainant Foundem, who sustained that the proposed rival links will consume the majority of rivals’ profits and will not be selected according to relevance, merit, or quality.

Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, recently addressed this issue, under the title ‘We built Google for users, not websites’, stating:

To date, no regulator has objected to Google giving people direct answers to their questions for the simple reason that it is better for users.

Facing the described context, the European Commission might have to seek to obtain more concessions from Google.

As the current Commission’s will be replaced in November, it is very unlikely that Joaquín Almunia, Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner responsible for competition, will be able to attain a final consensus within the Commission by then and the decision will most certainly be postponed in order to be taken under the next Commission.

Thus being said, Google is obviously trying to avoid formal charges. Of course it has no interest in having to pay a high fine nor damaging its reputation. But one might wonder if any compromise will ever be sufficient for its competitors.

From the several points raised by complainants, it seems sometimes that the intention is to artificially propel traffic to websites that compete with Google. That should not Google’s obligation. That wouldn’t even be fair for Google, nor in the best interests of consumers. And it would imply a senseless and unjustified advantage for competitors at the expenses of Google and, ultimately, consumers.

What must be ensured is the effectiveness of competition on the merits in the areas of specialized search and search advertising and, more importantly, the desirable effectiveness of the principle of Open Internet. The principle of Open Internet is defined as the enabling of Internet users to access the content, applications and services of their choice. It is therefore closely linked to the principle of Net Neutrality, meaning the ability for consumers to access and distribute information or run applications and services of their choice.

But an Open Internet also closely linked to competition among network, services and content providers, as it implies that each provider have the opportunity to test the value of its projects in the online marketplace. The door shall remain wide open for the next big company that will shake the online world. One must not forget that back in the 90’s, in the heydays of the internet, search engines as AltaVista and Yahoo were as popular as Google is now. Google outran them due to users’ preferences. And it must be guaranteed that consumers will be able to know about and use other services in the future if they prefer so.

Therefore, as competition and the principles of an Open Internet and Net Neutrality serve and benefit ultimately the consumers, competitors are not the main aim in themselves. Although they undeniably benefit from that protection, any confusion between the interests of consumers and of competitors shall be avoided.

Google shall not be prevented from improving its own services because its competitors are not as successful or are unable to keep up. So the suggestion of German justice minister Heiko Maas for Google to reveal its ranking algorithm in order to be more transparent appears as senseless.

What must be guaranteed is that users are informed of the existence of the competing websites, their relevance to the search, and are given the possibility to access them, thus providing users with a genuine choice between competing services. This must be the core of the European Commission’s assessment regarding the further concessions it might demand from Google in the future.

References   [ + ]

1. See Case 27/76 United Brands Company and United Brands Continentaal BV v Commission [1978] ECR 207, paragraph 65, and Case 85/76 Hoffmann-La Roche & Co. AG v Commission (1979) ECR 461, paragraph 38
2. See Case 322/81Michelin, ECR 3461 (1983) paragraph 57
3. You can better understand the proposal from the screenshots as shown here