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Who probes the Google probers? EU Commish in watchdog's sights

If at first you don’t succeed, complain, complain and complain again

As the European Commission puts the screws on Google, the Commish itself is to be probed by the European Ombudsman over its handling of the long-running anti-trust case.

The Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, confirmed in writing on Monday that she will investigate concerns raised by French company Interactive Lab, following its formal complaint in the Google anti-trust probe.

“I received a letter from Mrs O’Reilly this morning that her office will be opening the investigation concerning our complaint,” Renaud Chareyre, founder of Interactive Lab, told The Register. “We made six allegations; related to the handling of our complaint by DG COMP (the Commission’s competition department) concerning Google, but also the handling of the case in general and the behaviour of Mr Almunia [former EU Competition Commissioner].”

“At this stage, we are only looking into the specific allegation that there has been a delay in sending the announced 'pre-rejection letter' to the complainant,” a spokeswoman for the ombudsman told The Register. “To establish the facts, we will now inspect the Commission's file on the complaint by Interactive Lab."

Although the ombudsman is not proceeding with an investigation into all of the charges, Chareyre is pleased with what he says is a good first step: “An inspection of the file at DG COMP is what we wanted. It’s very good news, because we need to know more about the way these people are working. They just didn’t want to hear from us at all during the whole process.”

Interactive Lab first complained to the commission about Google in January 2011. Following its dealings with the Commish, Chareyre & Co sent a complaint to the ombudsman's office in February this year. Initially there was insufficient material for the watchdog to go ahead with an investigation, but after gathering more evidence – in this case a 15-page letter from DG COMP in mid-May – Interactive Lab's latest complaint, in June, has finally resulted in this probe.

Chareyre said that Almunia seemed fixated on reaching an agreement with Google and was keen to accept the remedies proposed by the Chocolate Factory. “But those remedies on the auction-based system is the whole basis of what we have been complaining about since Jan 2011. They didn’t consult us about the settlement, despite saying publicly that they had asked everyone.”

Between 2012 and 2014, a defiant Almunia bent over backwards to reach a settlement deal with the search engine, but his cozying up to Google was met with hostility from MEPs and his fellow commissioners.

The current competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager – who took over the job last November – could not be more different from her predecessor. In April, she sent an official chargesheet to the US tech monster.

The ombudsman’s probe, which could be expanded to take in more than a sole Interactive Lab allegation, is unlikely to affect Vestager’s handling of the case itself.

“The ombudsman’s role in competition cases is important, but will and should probably be rare. In any event, I would expect concerns about impartiality and lack of transparency to be much reduced given our experiences of Commissioner Vestager since she came into office,” said David Wood, legal counsel for ICOMP, which represents complainants in the case.

A Google spokesman declined to comment. ®

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