News Column

Pressure Grows on European Union To Act Against Google

March 29, 2012

James Kanter

Google

Consumer group with representatives from 31 European countries is calling for a quick resolution of an inquiry into the company's search and advertising practices.

As E.U. antitrust investigators prepare final recommendations in a case against Google, a prominent consumer group is calling for tough sanctions, warning that the U.S. technology giant may be using its power to the disadvantage of Internet users.

The director general of the European Consumers' Organization, in a letter to Joaquin Almunia, the E.U. antitrust commissioner, said Google "may have abused its position in the search market to direct users to its own services and secondly to reduce the visibility of competing Web sites and services."

The organization includes consumer groups from 31 European countries.

Whether the public has been robbed of choice is likely to be one of the questions in the antitrust investigation, which was formally begun by Almunia on Nov. 30, 2010, and focused on the company's search and advertising policies.

Monique Goyens, the head of the consumers' organization, wrote the letter on March 19 and publicized it Monday. The organization said it expected investigators to make recommendations to Almunia in the coming days.

Almunia should use his "powers to sanction dominant companies who abuse their position to the detriment of consumer welfare," Goyens wrote.

The next stage for Almunia is to decide whether to send Google formal charges known as a statement of objections. Google would be given a chance to respond before any decision was taken to impose fines or orders given to modify its practices.

Almunia could also seek a settlement in which the company agreed to modify its practices without a fine or guilty finding, or drop the case entirely.

Such investigations can drag on for years, which may be why the consumer group and others have stepped up their pressure on Almunia.

A European antitrust case against Microsoft eventually resulted in a series of fines totaling more than $2 billion for the company - - but the process lasted about a decade. During that period, a number of competitors complained that they were losing out to Microsoft and warned that the European process was too slow.

Andreas Schwab, a German member of the European Parliament, said Tuesday that he thought Almunia was pursuing the case as quickly as possible. But Schwab also said that still might not be fast enough to protect the online companies operating in Europe.

"Maybe there is no wrongdoing," Schwab said, but Google has "a de-facto monopoly and we can't allow citizens to be dependent on one company."

Google, which is used for the majority of searches in Europe, has said that it allows consumers to find the information they are seeking as quickly as possible, and that consumers can easily switch to other services.

Google declined to comment on the letter from the organization, or about the timing of the decision.

Almunia said in January that he would review the recommendations in the case, usually a sign that a decision on formal charges is imminent, toward the end of the first quarter of this year. On Tuesday, the European Commission suggested the timetable remained the same.

"The case team will soon report on the case," said Antoine Colombani, a spokesman for Mr. Almunia.

The consumer group has not been alone in putting pressure on the commission at this critical stage of the E.U. investigation. FairSearch, a coalition of 17 companies including Microsoft, which filed a formal complaint against Google in Europe a year ago, has raised its presence with a Web site in Europe that went live last month.

"FairSearch launched in Europe recently to elevate the voices of our European members, several of whom have filed complaints with the commission as it weighs a finding that Google has broken European Union competition and consumer protection laws," Thomas Vinje, the European counsel for FairSearch, said in a statement Tuesday.

Google has been "unfairly directing consumers to Google's own products and away from other providers of specialized search,"and that had put at stake "the future of innovation online" and "the ability of small firms throughout Europe to compete on a level playing field," Vinje said.



Source: (C) 2012 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved


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