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Reports: Google facing antitrust showdown in Europe

/ 08:02 AM April 15, 2015

European regulators are poised to file charges alleging Google abused its dominance in Internet search to thwart competition and innovation, according to reports published Tuesday.

An announcement by the European Union’s top antitrust regulator, Margrethe Vestager, could come Wednesday, according to unnamed people cited in separate reports by The Wall Street Journal and The NewYork Times. Vestager plans to fly to the U.S. Wednesday for a series of meetings, the reports said.

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Google Inc. didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

READ: Europe warns Google, Samsung on phone patent abuse

If a case is filed, it would set up a legal battle that could culminate in Google being fined about $6 billion, or 10 percent of its annual revenue, and force the Mountain View, California, company to overhaul its system for recommending websites in Europe.

A complaint challenging Google’s conduct “would represent a significant step towards ending Google’s anti-competitive practices, which have harmed innovation and consumer choice,” said Thomas Vinje, legal counsel for FairSearch Europe, a group that has been urging regulators to rein in Google.

Europe’s looming showdown with Google also could intensify scrutiny of a similar US antitrust investigation that the Federal Trade Commission settled in 2013 without finding any significant misbehavior. A confidential report mistakenly released to The Wall Street Journal last month revealed the FTC’s legal staff had recommended suing Google for breaking antitrust laws only to be overruled by the agency’s governing commissioners.

Google has previously offered to make some concessions in an attempt to settle Europe’s antitrust probe, which began nearly five years ago, only to have the negotiations unravel. But those efforts to forge a truce occurred under Vestager’s predecessor, Joaquin Almunia, who stepped down late last year.

European regulators, like their US peers, have been looking into complaints that Google improperly highlights its own digital maps and other services at the expense of its rivals. The alleged favoritism corrals Google’s services, a strategy that Google’s critics contend enables the Internet’s most powerful company to sell more of the ads that generate most of its revenue, while diverting traffic from other websites trying to compete with their own products.

Google repeatedly has denied any wrongdoing, arguing there is nothing preventing people from using other search engines to find information, entertainment and shopping recommendations. Critics, though, deride Google as a ruthless monopoly that wields its dominant position to stymie its rivals. By some estimates, Google processes about nine out of 10 search requests in parts of Europe — even more than in the US where it commands about two-thirds of the market.

The push to crack down on Google is being led by a group of publishers and technology companies that includes Microsoft Corp., which once tangled with Europe’s antitrust regulators over the way it bundled products with its Windows operating system.

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An antitrust case against Google would be Europe’s biggest since regulators wrangled with Microsoft.

TOPICS: Abuse, antitrust, case, Europe, Google, Internet, Margrethe Vestager
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