Google Europe: A No Good, Very Bad Week

This has not been a good week so far for Google's European operations. The search giant has been hit with official complaints of anti-competitive behavior from three companies based in the European Union, and three Google employees have been convicted of violating Italian privacy laws.

European Commission

Three companies have filed complaints with the European Commission, the EU's regulatory board, charging Google with anti-competitive behavior, according to a Google Blog post. Foundem, a price comparison site, is reportedly arguing that since it is a direct competitor to Google's own shopping services, the search giant ranks Foundem lower in its results. Ejustice.fr has similar complaints to Foundem, while Microsoft-owned Ciao has taken issue with Google's terms and conditions, Google says.

In my own tests, using the search terms "price comparison sites uk" on Google.co.uk, Foundem was listed towards the bottom of the third page of search results after an extensive list of UK-based price comparison sites.

Microsoft

In its blog post about these issues, Google not so subtly ties Microsoft to these complaints. Ciao's ties are obvious since it is a Microsoft-owned company, but Foundem had indirect ties since it is a member of a group called Initiative for a Competitive Marketplace (ICOMP), which is supported in part by Microsoft. That does not necessarily mean, however, that these companies' complaints are unfounded. As the Financial Times points out, the Web browser maker Opera, a direct competitor of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, initiated the successful antitrust case recently brought against Microsoft in Europe.

Woe is Google

Charges against Google for unfair practices relating to its search algorithms are nothing new. In 2006, a US-based company named KinderStart took Google to court, arguing the search giant was unfairly excluding KinderStart from its search results; the suit was dismissed a year later.

But interestingly, the charges against Google in Europe are occurring at the same time as accusations of unfair trade practices against Google in the United States. Eric Goldman, an Associate Professor of Law at Santa Clara University School of Law, suggested in a recent blog post that some of these US-based lawsuits might be part of a Microsoft campaign "to harass Google on antitrust issues." The evidence Goldman provides in his blog post is largely circumstantial, but the suggestion of Microsoft involvement are interesting given the new European complaints.

Italian Privacy

Google announced in a separate blog post early Wednesday that three of its employees in Italy have been convicted of violating Italian privacy laws. The case dates back to 2006 when school children in Turin, Italy filmed themselves bullying a 17-year old boy with Down Syndrome and uploaded the evidence to Google Video. The search giant complied with requests from Italian police to remove the bullying video, but not before it received about 12,000 views online. After the video was taken down, Google says it also helped police find the perpetrators.

Italian prosecutors decided to hold Google responsible for the video by charging four Google executives with defamation and failing to protect the privacy of the boy with Down Syndrome. The charge of defamation was ultimately dismissed, and Google says it will appeal the conviction of its four employees.

As Google points out in its blog post, the message these convictions send is particularly troubling. If Web sites were held accountable for every piece of user-generated content, then many aspects of the Web most users enjoy including social networks, blogs, and video and photo sharing sites would be severely threatened. Imagine if every blog owner could be hauled before a judge for comments left on their blogs, or if Twitter was sued every time someone was slandered via the microblogging service.

I'm not sure many companies would be willing to take the risk associated with the kind of responsibility the Italian court's decision implies. It will be interesting to see if Google can successfully overturn the conviction, or whether the concept of holding Web-based services accountable for the actions of its users will spread beyond Italy.

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