By Alex Barker, Christian Oliver and Anne-Sylvaine
April 14, 2015, 2:01pm ET
Google will on Wednesday be accused by Brussels of illegally abusing its dominance of search in Europe, a step that ultimately could force it to fundamentally change its business model and pay hefty fines.
Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition commissioner, is to say that the US group will soon be served with a formal charge sheet alleging that it breached antitrust rules by diverting traffic from rivals in order to favour its in-house services, according to two people familiar with the case.
Serving Google with a so-called statement of objections will be the opening salvo in one of the defining antitrust cases of the internet era. It could prove as epic as the decade-long battle with Microsoft that ultimately cost the company more than €2bn in fines.
The commission’s move comes after a torrid a five-year investigation that Google came close to settling without charges last year. The draft deal collapsed after fierce objections were raised by ministers in France and Germany, and by some of the continent’s most powerful telecoms and media groups.
The EU’s antitrust case comes against the backdrop of a growing European backlash against Silicon Valley and the economic disruption of the digital age. Once lauded for their innovative spirit, big US tech groups have come under mounting criticism in Europe over their market dominance and the way they handle personal data, especially in the wake of the US internet surveillance scandal.
A decision on charges is to be taken by the college of 28 EU commissioners on Wednesday. Some commissioners are concerned that Ms Vestager has, according to one source, restructured and narrowed the case she inherited from her predecessor Joaquín Almunia. As well as search issues, the investigation has looked at allegations that Google illegally scrapes content from rivals, locks in some publishers into using Google search ads, and makes it hard for advertisers to move campaigns to rival search engines.
Although Google has faced antitrust questions on three continents for several years, the EU move is the first time the company has been accused of formal wrongdoing. It will be given 10 weeks to respond to the allegations and will have the opportunity to call a hearing to make its defence.
Ultimately, the commission has the power to levy fines of up to 10 per cent of Google’s global turnover and can impose far-reaching curbs on its business practices. Almost 20 complainants against Google want the search engine to abide by strict rules that ensure its formula treats its own services — providing results for travel, shopping, and maps — no differently from rivals. Spokespeople for Google and the commission declined to comment.
If the charges are proven, it could take at least a year and probably significantly longer for the commission to make a final decision. Google would probably challenge any ruling that goes against it through the European courts, opening a legal war that could run for years.
The commission’s long attempt to settle the case with Google under Ms Vestager’s predecessor Mr Almunia made it one of the most fraught and politically charged antitrust cases to be dealt with by Brussels.
Google supporters feel the commission’s volte-face on a settlement reflected politics rather than an independent assessment. No EU antitrust case has ever been extended to three settlement offers, or been revived after complainants were formally warned that their case is about to be rejected.
On top of the pressure from Brussels, this week Google is also under scrutiny in France where lawmakers are considering an initiative that would force it to hand over its secret formula for ranking websites.
Revealing our algorithms — our intellectual property — would lead to the gaming of our results, which would be a bad experience for users
The French senate is likely to adopt a bill this week which would allow the country’s national telecoms regulator to monitor search engines’ algorithms, with sweeping powers to ensure its results are fair and non-discriminatory. The French initiative will become law only if it is adopted by the senate and the lower house of parliament and will also require government backing.
Critics complain that Google’s algorithm can be skewed to hurt rivals and want it published to ensure accountability. Google argues such transparency would make its search engine a target of spam and hand rivals its business secrets for free.
A spokesperson for Google in France said: “We’re transparent about what ranks well on Google, including when we make changes, but by definition, not everyone can come top. Revealing our algorithms — our intellectual property — would lead to the gaming of our results, which would be a bad experience for users.”
The amendment, proposed by centre-right lawmakers and attached to a broader economic reform bill assembled by economy minister Emmanuel Macron, has yet to secure the government backing needed to survive the legislative process and pass in the National Assembly.
But Catherine Morin-Desailly, chair of the Senate’s culture, education and communication committee, told the Financial Times that discussions with the government were encouraging.
“The government is well aware of the issues,” Ms Morin-Desailly said. “It’s a question of ensuring fairness. Too many businesses view search engines as bottlenecks. The net is tightening around [Google].”
If approved, the proposal would give Arcep, France’s telecoms regulator, oversight of any search engine that has sufficient power to “structure the functioning of the digital economy”. Google would be required to provide links to at least three rival search engines on its homepage, and disclose to users the “general principles of ranking”.
Additional reporting by Richard Waters in San Francisco