Home >industry >infotech >Google skews results to boost its own products, EU alleges

Brussels/Luxembourg: Google faces a new antitrust attack from European Union regulators who allege the search engine skews results in its own favour and unfairly restricts rival online advertising platforms.

The European Commission sent the Alphabet Inc. unit two statements of objections on Thursday, widening a five-year probe and increasing the risk of hefty fines for the US Internet giant.

Adding to an antitrust complaint over Google’s Android smartphone software earlier this year, EU regulators said they have “a broad range of additional evidence and data" that Google systematically favours its own comparison-shopping service in its general search results.

“We see that happen very, very, very often," EU Antitrust Commissioner Margrethe Vestager told journalists on Thursday, about how often Google pushes its own search results. “This is where we have the strongest evidence and it’s the same kind of investigation that we are pursuing when it comes to travel and local search to see if we find a pattern that suggests that Google is abusing a dominant position in general search."

Google also hindered competition for online ads with its AdSense for Search product to place advertising on websites, including retailers, telecommunications operators and newspapers, the commission said.

The company prevented customers from accepting rival search ads from 2006 and maintained restrictions on how competitors’ ads were displayed when it altered contracts in 2009, according to the EU’s antitrust arm.

‘Increased choice’

“We believe that our innovations and product improvements have increased choice for European consumers and promote competition," Google said in a statement Thursday. “We’ll examine the commission’s renewed cases and provide a detailed response in the coming weeks."

The EU has expanded its investigations into Google’s business practices since Vestager took over as the bloc’s antitrust chief in late 2014.

“This demonstrates her determination to pursue the matter vigorously and to follow the investigation wherever it leads," said Thomas Vinje, a lawyer with Clifford Chance who represents FairSearch Europe, whose members include Expedia Inc. and Nokia Oyj.

‘High profile’

“Additional statements of objections have proved necessary in several other complex, high-profile cases against determined opponents, including both Microsoft and Intel in the early 2000s,’’ Vinje said.

The shopping search probe, opened in 2010, alleges that Google doesn’t subject its own service to its algorithm, which ranks search results on quality and relevance to the user. It may also set a precedent for other services, such as flight, travel and mapping.

EU investigators use a software tool to check how Google displays results when people search for products. Industry groups said what evidence this is, will be key.

“The commission refers to evidence that Google harms the market; it will be important to show what this evidence is as our research shows a thriving market with record levels of investment into e-commerce in Europe," said James Waterworth, Europe vice-president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, which speaks for technology companies including Google.

Aside from Google antitrust scrutiny on at least three fronts — search, advertising and Android — the EU is also probing complaints on its use of copyrighted content from publishers. EU technology regulators have hinted at possible rules on legal liability for online platforms like Google. Bloomberg

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