How many years can an antitrust case endure in the EU? It certainly depends on many factors but in the case of Google 4 is the minimum. This is because the topic of a ‘digital monopoly’ of a search engine is so refined and sophisticated that for the majority of EU stakeholders it is “terra incognita”. Also because too many interests are at stake, see for example how major European media are campaigning against Google and its power to ‘undermine’ their adverts in the search results.
The Sting has been following the matter very closely and maintains a balanced approach between the ‘search monopoly fighters’ and the right of a company to design its strategy and defence its intellectual property. For 4 years the former EU Commissioner for competition Joaquin Almunia, has been beating around the bush, launching complains, receiving Google’s proposals to alleviate the damage and throwing them back, consulting media and stakeholders. Unfortunately for the department, and fortunately for him, the good Commissioner decided to leave last month and ‘donate’ this hot potato to Margrethe Vestager, the new antitrust chief in Brussels.
As anti-Google campaigns were raging at the end of Mr Almunia’s service, in a clear attempt to push him to make up his mind, finally, it was somehow expected that the matter would escalate in the month of November, the early beginning of Mrs Vestager service. Only that this time it has reached the point where the European Parliament demands the break up of Google. Can this be?
At the end of last week two Parlamentarians, Andreas Schwab, a member of the center-right European People’s Party, and Ramon Tremosa of Spain, a member of the Parliament’s Liberal group, came up with a “potion magique” to resolve the matter. According to that resolution the two good MEPs call the Commission “to consider proposals with the aim of unbundling search engines from other commercial services as one potential long-term solution”. So basically, what they suggest is to break up Google Search from Google Ads as business units.
“We want fair and neutral search in the interest of consumers. Unbundling is one of the ideas but we proposed several ideas of solutions that are on the table”, they underline. They believe that “the mechanism would hinder Google from applying the ranking algorithms that it currently uses. Thereby, it would be guaranteed that users receive relevant results while benefiting from greater choice”. Also they find it “essential that competition within the EU is not obstructed by multinational Internet companies that possess a dominant position”. But is it valid for two MEPs to suggest the breakup of a company when they are not able to understand or find a better way to solve it constructively both for the consumer and the market?
It seems that not even the two politicians have so much confidence in their resolution. Last Monday they issued a common statement on the matter that goes like this: “Tremosa and Schwab are not ideological against Google! We are against monopolies. Unbundling is one of the ideas but we proposed several”. Moreover, antitrust Commissioner Vestager said through her spokesperson: “We are committed to ensuring fair competition in the markets they are active in. Commissioner Vestager will decide on how to take the ongoing antitrust investigations into Google’s business practices forward, once she has heard what those most directly affected by the practices in question have to say” . Obviously it is in the Commission’s interest to maintain a balanced approach on this one.
Even though Google made no comment or official statement on the proposal issued by the two MEPs, the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), lobby organisation of which Google is a member, argues: “this motion, especially if passed by Parliament, threatens to undermine the credibility of a long running Commission investigation by blatantly interjecting politics into a legal process”…“Even though this motion is clearly directed at one company, the approach taken in this motion—and the politics surrounding the Google competition case in general—has wider implications and threatens the entire Internet economy”.
Who is right here? Two MEPs that don’t even believe in their drafted proposal or a lobby organisation? The truth as always in Brussels lies somewhere in the middle. While it is always good that the Parliament creates awareness and noise on matters that are of the EU citizen’s interest, it is absolutely the Commission’s job to examine the matter thoroughly and not let it linger like the team of Mr Almunia did.
The MEP’s proposal is expected to be discussed today in Strasbourg and the EU Parliament to vote on it tomorrow. While it will be interesting to see the outcome of this new anti-Google campaign, we would like to hope that this Commission will be able to put a fair closure on the matter soon and not wait again another 4 years for the new new Commissioner to come.