Google’s hot summer never ends: EC to launch ANOTHER antitrust inquiry against the American giant

The word "Google" in the hall of the main entrance of the "Google Partner Plex" in San Francisco, during José Manuel Barroso's, President of the EC, visit last May (EC Audiovisual Services, 1/05/2014)

The word “Google” in the hall of the main entrance of the “Google Partner Plex” in San Francisco, during José Manuel Barroso’s, President of the EC, visit last May (EC Audiovisual Services, 1/05/2014)

We must admit it: this is not exactly a quiet summer for Google. Not in the Old Continent at least. After the “Right To Be Forgotten” case has disturbed Google’s top management’s sleep recently, a new dark cloud may come soon.

According to Reuters, the Mountain View, California-based company may soon face a new probe by European antitrust regulators over business practices related to Android. Citing anonymous sources, Reuters revealed that European regulators are allegedly investigating whether Google abuses its strong position in the mobile operating system space to promote its own services over those developed by rivals.
Regulators have allegedly sent questionnaires to those who have had business dealings with Google, like telecom companies and phone manufacturers among others, to understand whether Google is forcing them into promoting its own services.

And therefore abusing the 80 percent market share of its Android mobile operating system. “Anyone can use Android without Google, and anyone can use Google without Android”. This was the first comment that Google made public through one of its spokespersons in a statement. But a Reuters source says that if companies want timely updates, they must sign a contract agreeing to pre-install a minimum number of Google apps.

Although nothing has already happened yet and the probe is still only a threat for Google, the matter looks serious. If evidence is found that indicates Google is guilty of forcing hardware partners to install Google apps and services rather than their own ones, then the American giant could be facing a full antitrust investigation that could have enormous effects on the entire mobile devices world.

Many say that the key lies on the election of the new Competition Chief of the European Commission, next November. In fact all of this is happening while the Vice President of the European Commission responsible for competition issues, Joaquín Almunia, is getting ready to leave. Almunia himself faced widespread criticism for being “too mild” with Google during a previous case.

Google has been indeed under investigation previously for another unfair-competition-related case, when the company was accused of irregularly promoting their own products and services in the web-based search engine. Google then offered to give more prominence to links of competing services, an offer that has been fiercely criticized by rivals and detractors, with a final decision expected to come in September. The next man or woman to cover the position that Almunia currently chairs will be surely decisive to understand whether the world’s most popular search-engine will face another huge challenge soon, and most of all to learn more about the official position of the EU on antitrust and fair competition matters. Which is something incredibly important.

The European Commission’s officials are not losing time now anyway. The questions contained in the questionnaires sent to Google’s competitors are reported to be very clear-cut. In one questionnaire seen by Reuters, respondents were asked whether there was a requirement set by Google, written or unwritten, that they not “pre-install apps, products or services on mobile devices that compete with Google”.

What is clear now is that Google is facing enormous criticism in Europe about almost everything. From tax policy to privacy, from freedom of expression to licence regulation, the Californian company is under the spot light.

But this time is different. Android is a different thing, because this matter is a very delicate “battlefield”. Mobile is indeed the key market for Google and Android represents a crucial channel for Google to extend its search engine into the mobile world. When Android was purchased, almost ten years ago, the mission was crystal clear: Google basically wanted to enter the mobile market, an enormous space where to push its product and services. The thing worked, and the success was immense. As of 2011, Android had the largest installed base of any mobile OS and as of 2013, its devices also were selling more than Windows, iOS and Mac OS devices combined. At Google I/O 2014, the company revealed that there were over 1 billion active monthly Android users.

Now mobile represents the kind of challenge that can’t be ignored and an Android investigation by the European Commission would be quite a turbulence for Google.

It’s not clear yet what steps regulators might take if they find Google is violating antitrust law. Whatever will be in Google’s future it’s anyway evident that this case may represent a milestone in Europe’s antitrust regulation history, which is by the way trying currently to catch up with the frenetic rhythms of technology evolutions.

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