Spinning off some of its activities into separate companies under the Alphabet umbrella isn’t going to make Google’s problems with Europe’s top antitrust authority go away: European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager still has the company in her sights.
Google figured heavily in a wide-ranging interview with the Wall Street Journal, published Monday, in which Vestager discussed many of the cases before her.
Here’s a list of the Commission’s ongoing areas of action against Google, and what’s next for each of them.
After investigating complaints from a number of comparison shopping and vertical search sites, including U.K. search engine Foundem, Microsoft-owned Ciao and the French 1plusV, the European Commission filed formal charges against Google on April 15, accusing it of illegally favoring its own service Google Shopping over those of its rivals in search results.
The search giant had previously appeared close to reaching a settlement with the Commission, but the filing of a formal Statement of Objections put an end to that.
The Commission is now analyzing Google’s response to the charges before making a decision on whether to impose a fine or other remedies.
“It is high priority but it will take some time because it is analysis and data comparison et cetera, which is challenging,” Vestager told the Journal.
On the same day Vestager announced the charges against Google over its treatment of price comparators, she opened a new investigation into Google’s use of the Android operating system. The core of the Android operating system, the Android Open Source Project, is free software, but most Android smartphones ship with proprietary Google services for mapping, search and buying additional apps.
The Commission is investigating whether Google hinders the development of alternatives to its own services in these areas by requiring that smartphone and tablet manufacturers exclusively pre-install its own apps and services.
The Commission is making this investigation a high priority, as it is particularly important for phone makers and app developers, Vestager told the Journal.
However, there is no deadline for filing charges once the Commission has opened an investigation, so this one could run and run. The main effect of declaring an investigation open is that national competition authorities can no longer accept cases of their own on this matter.
The investigation that resulted in the comparison shopping charges drew the attention of companies in other markets that felt they had suffered illegally at Google’s hands, ultimately prompting the Commission to also investigate Google’s behavior in the online advertising market. Its concerns included the effect of exclusivity deals with publishers, and restrictions in Google’s standard contracts preventing advertisers from moving their online campaigns to rival platforms.
Those concerns were still live in September last year, when outgoing competition commissioner Joaquín Almunia was negotiating a settlement with Google that would have covered them all, but when Vestager took over the post in November and pushed for charges rather than a settlement, the Commission clearly felt it could only muster hard evidence to make the comparison shopping charge stick.
Vestager’s philosophy is that the various complaints should be treated separately in order to give Google a fair hearing.
“I do not think of it as one Google case but literally as different investigations and different cases,” she told the Journal. “What they have in common is that the name Google appears in each one, but apart from that they are very different.”
Reports emerged in August that the Commission had received two further complaints about Google’s advertising practices, although neither is listed in the Commission’s online register of ongoing investigations. Also that month, the Commission reportedly sent out questionnaires asking companies for information about the advertising contracts Google has used over the last four years.
With the advertising antitrust investigation still very much live, although not a top priority, Commission staff will continue studying complaints and analyzing the responses to the questionnaires.
The investigation could yet be dropped, or result in a settlement or a formal statement of objections.
Much like the investigation of Google’s advertising sales, complaints about the company’s scraping of copyright information from other websites have been spun off into an investigation of their own.
The Commission is said to have also circulated a questionnaire to website operators in August, asking them about the ways in which Google takes their content, such as photographs, and uses it in its own services.
The Commission must now analyze the results of its questionnaire.
Vestager is keen not to overreach with this investigation, giving the Journal a strong hint that it might ultimately go nowhere.
“It’s very important to make sure we are not trying to do what is basically for copyright” law to deal with, she said.
Other vertical search services
In filing charges against Google in April, the Commission noted that it was still pursuing formal investigations into Google’s favorable treatment of other specialized search services in its general search results.
Those areas seem to have been left on the back burner, though, with Vestager telling the Journal that “when we eventually look at maps and travel, and a number of other related services,” the Commission may find similarities with its comparison shopping investigation, as all the complaints tell a similar story of companies feeling that they had been demoted in search results.
A long wait, unless fresh complaints with more clear-cut evidence of wrongdoing emerge