​EC setting the stage to finally file antitrust charges against Google

Europe's competition regulator is preparing to reexamine Google's allegedly anti-competitive practices, once again attempting to bring its long-running investigation to a head.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Europe's antitrust regulator is preparing to file charges against Google over its long-running and unsettled investigation into alleged violations of Europe's competition law, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The European Commission has asked companies that have privately filed complaints against Google for permission to publish portions of them. It's also been pressing the companies for updated information about their complaints.

The move, a Brussels-based lawyer representing one of Google's rivals told the WSJ, is a sign the European Commission is getting ready to file charges against the search company. The lawyer said the EC was likely now preparing a statement of objections regarding the case.

The investigation, which began in 2010, looked at whether Google abused its dominance in search by promoting its own vertical search products, such as travel and shopping, over those of rivals. Former EC competition boss Joaquín Almunia failed to reach a settlement with Google during his tenure, despite repeated efforts.

In December, the EC's new competition boss Margrethe Vestager sent a fresh round of questions to Google's rivals regarding maps, travel, and other areas to update its information on the case. Companies that have filed complaints in the past include Microsoft, TripAdvisor, and Yelp, among others.

According to the WSJ report, in recent weeks the EC has contacted shopping, local, and travel search companies seeking permission to publish their complaints.

Respondents to the latest EC questionnaire had until Thursday to respond. Unnamed sources told the paper that the EC had asked to make public the documentation over a 2012 complaint regarding changes Google made to its Google Shopping search service.

It's by no means clear whether the EC will actually file charges against Google, however, though its powers allow it to potentially fine Google up to $6bn - the equivalent of 10 percent of its annual revenue - and impose restrictions on the company.

The other option open to the EC is to reach a settlement with Google - the path Almunia was pursuing. However, the last set of remedies proposed by Google was fiercely contested by its search rivals and European publishers. Almunia described responses to the proposal as "very, very negative", and said they justified the EC's decision to pursue further concessions from Google.

Vestager's office declined to comment on the matter when contacted by ZDNet. Google was not immediately available for a response.

Europe's reported move on Google comes as Google's run-in with the US Federal Trade Commission flared up again over revelations, reported recently by the WSJ, that some of the regulator's officials believed Google had violated competition law. In response, however, the FTC reiterated its position that it had concluded that Google's search practices were not demonstrably anti-competitive.

In a worrying sign for Google, Vesteger earlier this month said she preferred court decisions over settlements.

"It's very important not to make a habit out of settlements," she said, according to the Financial Times. "They are much more quick and much more smooth and everyone can move on, but still you need occasion to develop [case law] and only our judges and going to court can do that."

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