Although EU competition commissioner (and Borgen inspiration) Margrethe Vestager made clear that her decision to slap Google with a statement of objections is about consumers, that hasn't stopped the US firm's Euro detractors queuing up to cheer her decision.
Representatives of Fairsearch and ICOMP – both organisations set up to represent Google complainants – were first in line to welcome the move. After five years of to-ing and fro-ing from the Commish, they were not going to be caught napping.
However Alfonso Lamadrid, a senior associate in EU and competition law at law firm Garrigues, Brussels, said that the big news is that the Commission has already addressed its concerns to Google.
“I believe that this is a bold move from the Commission, because from the outside it is not clear that this will be a home run. This was unthinkable years or even months ago,” he added.
Google was originally accused of abusing its dominant position in the European search market by systematically favouring its own comparison shopping product in its general search results pages, imposing restrictive contracts on advertisers and scraping content from other sites. Vestager, however, has decided to narrow down the investigation to just the first element.
“The Commission will now have to frame its theory of 'harm' legally – a positive development for those interested in the clarity of the law. Although it is possible that the case may continue to be about issues other than the law,” said Lamadrid.
As well as narrowing the scope of the charges against the Chocolate Factory, Vesager has also said what she will not do.
“Just to be absolutely clear. We do not wish to interfere with screen design, or how the algorithm works,” she said.
That decision was also welcomed by search rival Yelp, whose head of EU public policy, Kostas Rossoglou, said: “We're heartened to see the Statement of Objections, as it signals Commissioner Vestager will be vigilant about enforcing European law. Commissioner Vestager is correct in saying that regulatory oversight of algorithms isn't required to protect consumers.”
Catalan MEP Ramon Tremosa, who has called for Google to be broken up into constituent parts, said his only concern what that it took so long for the Commission to act, alleging: “Enough time has been lost, after nearly five years in which Google has de facto become a monopoly in Europe. I always declared that, without any pressure, Google had no intention to change or propose a serious remedy to the harm done. Google, with over 90 per cent of market share in some EU Member States, is the de facto gatekeeper of the internet for European SMEs and consumers.”
David Wood, general counsel for lobbying association ICOMP, said Vestager’s “bold move” would be “greeted by relief among complainants, harmed businesses and consumers across Europe”.
“Google’s flagrant abuse of their massively dominant position has caused untold harm to consumers across Europe for many years. In the offline world, regulators would not have allowed Google’s conduct to go unchecked for so long,” added Vinzenz Stimpfl-Abele, senior partner at German ad agency Newcleus Communications.
Celebrations could be heard from the other side of the Atlantic as well.
“I, like many others running online businesses in the United States, welcome the decision taken by the European Commission. Google’s anti-competitive behaviour is well documented by regulators across the globe, including the FTC as shown by recent revelations. Hopefully, the Commission’s action will have a positive impact beyond Europe,” said Dan Savage, managing partner, Resolute Digital, another “digital agency”.
At this early stage the accusations against Google are purely that; accusations. No finding of fact has yet been made and while many people – including the sources quoted above – have expressed their views on Google's behaviour in the markets, the ultimate arbiter will be the legal process that the EU Commission started yesterday.
The Register asked Google whether it had anything to add, but it declined.
After her statement to the press yesterday, Vestager hopped on a plane to the States meet her US counterparts. ®