Analysis Europe’s unelected competition czar has signed off with a sour burp aimed at his elected critics in Parliament.
"I don't think antitrust investigations should be part of the conventional political debates," Joaquín Almunia complains in the Wall Street Journal.
He was quizzed on his failure to deal with Google, a case which defines his term as Commissioner. His friendly strategy with how his Competition Commission (DG-COMP) predecessors dealt with the US tech monopolies, Microsoft and Intel. Both of those were the subject of formal investigations and ultimately slapped with fines.
Almunia’s office had amassed a mountain of evidence on the Californian data-processing giant, but Almunia declined to launch a formal investigation, preferring to cut a back room deal. Almunia and Google chairman Eric Schmidt had kept in close contact via text message, but the former Spanish trade union economist has declined attempts to reveal what they discussed.
Google ran the clock down for five years (DG-COMP began its informal probe in November 2010), slowly producing a succession of voluntary proposals only Google and Almunia thought were adequate. Pressure from MEPs and other commissioners shot down the latest of these earlier this year.
That earned Almunia a telling-off from MEPs.
Now Almunia thinks his successor might open up the formal investigation he declined to do in 2010, after all. But personally, he doesn’t think that this would be a good idea:
“Google has provoked a lot of emotions and in some cases ... some kind of irrational emotions, of this leviathan that will eliminate all our freedoms, all our privacy, all our rights," he says. "And I think it isn't logical."
Perhaps he’s right. On the other hand, Google is (or has been), the subject of antitrust investigations on five continents: the EU, the USA, Canada, Taiwan, South Korea, India, Argentina and Brazil. In Taiwan and India, regulators found Google was obstructing justice. And in several cases where Google settled the charges, it was then found guilty of violating the deal. That’s how seriously it takes this "complying with the law" malarkey. And that's just competition law.
In terms of privacy, the charge sheet is even longer (PDF). Then there are other areas, such as Google’s relationship with criminal industries. Google continued to do business with illegal online pharmacies (it had promised not to, but was finally caught in a sting operation) and paid a half billion dollar forfeiture (pdf) in 2010 to make the Federal case go away, and set aside a further $250m to make the shareholders case go away too.
"In my 10 years as attorney general I have dealt with a lot of large corporate wrongdoers”, observed the Mississippi attorney general Jim Hood, "I must say that yours is the first I have encountered to have no corporate conscience for the safety of its customers, the viability of its fellow corporations or the negative economic impact on the nation which has allowed your company to flourish.”
If Almunia is correct, then a lot of regulators are being "defensive” and "irrational" everywhere all at once.
One area that DG-COMP is pursuing, however, is Google’s Android contracts. It has instructed phone manufacturers operating in Europe to spill the beans – and if they don’t, it will fine them. But it will be his successor that handles the Beast. Almunia told Reuters: "There will be no opening of new cases. No, there is no time. It will be up to the new Commission." ®