Google once more under EU crossfire from a possible record fine and new Right to be forgotten case

Google logoMany years have passed but the controversial conflict between the European Commission and Google doesn’t seem to be reaching any equilibrium. Indeed the long story is now ready to land to a new turning point. According to the Sunday Telegraph, Google may soon be hit with a 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion) fine by the European Commission for market monopoly, something that would surely not be a happy ending.

Indeed the 3 billion Euro fine would set a new record, tripling the Commission’s highest fine to date, the € 1.1 billion fine imposed on microchip giant Intel in 2009, and could even be just a first estimate. The maximum the Commission is able to fine is around €6.6 billion, up to a tenth of Google’s total annual sales. It seems that Google could also be banned from continuing to manipulate its algorithms – and so its search results – in any possible way, according to the Telegraph, something that has allegedly favoured its business and harmed rivals through the years. This would subsequently impact all product categories, not just shopping.

The whole story

The European Union has accused Google of promoting its shopping service in Internet searches at the expense of its competitors, in an overall case that began with an investigation in 2010. The Commission then formally accused Google of damaging competition in the Old Continent and having promoted its own content solely with unjust practices. Google has then tried for three years to reach a compromise with former Competition Commissioner Joaquim Almunia, but ended up just buying time before Almunia’s successor’s, Margrethe Vestager, took over.

So the new Competition Commissioner formally filed complaints against the Mountain View, California-based company last year, accusing Google of having systematically favoured its own price comparison service in general search results while hiding those of its competitors. Also, still in 2015 the Commission opened a separate antitrust investigation on mobile operating system Android, owned by Google, into another alleged monopoly abuse.

Google’s not “forgotten”

But that’s not all for Google in this extremely delicate moment for its business in the EU. As the latest chapter of another long-standing EU-Google quarrel, the “Right to be forgotten”, Google is appealing against a demand by French regulators to apply the rule also outside Europe.

The Californian company, in compliance with the 2014 ruling by the European Court of Justice, currently removes search results that “appear to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant or excessive […] in the light of the time that had elapsed” only from European domains, such as “.it” in Italy or “.fr”.

New evolutions

Then months ago, amid risks of new complaints by the EU watchdog, Google also started removing results from all its international domains, such as “.com”, if accessed from the user’s country.

Earlier this year, last March, the French data protection regulator (the CNIL) decided to fine Google with 100,000 euros for failing to remove all received requests from global search results, not only French ones, claiming that interpretation of French law that is protecting the right to be forgotten should be applied worldwide. Now although it’s clear that such fine won’t ever be an issue for Google by all means, the case is definitely worth adding to the Google file.

Google’s reaction

Google has formally decided to take a fight against France’s privacy watchdog. “As a matter of both law and principle, we disagree with this demand”, the US tech company said in an official statement by Kent Walker, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, which was first published on Le Monde newspaper last week. “We comply with the laws of the countries in which we operate – but if French law applies globally, how long will it be until other countries […] start demanding that their laws regulating information likewise have global reach?”.

Google indeed is now fearing the new “French turn” can be taken as a brand-new common practice by other countries too, in a series of actions that can become really alarming for its business in Europe. “This order could lead to a global race to the bottom, harming access to information that is perfectly lawful to view in one’s own country”, the company said.

European “crossfire”

The situation seems to have now reached a dead end for Google, or at least a very critical point. On one hand the US tech giant could be facing the highest fine ever issued by the European Commission, something that would surely mark a watershed in the long-standing matter with the EU and a huge impact on the Profit and Loss statements of the giant. Indeed the Commission seems to be determined to act very soon against Google, according to the Telegraph. The British newspaper reported that sources close to the matter said the EU officials were aiming to make an announcement before the summer, and that they could make their move as early as next month, despite Google’s bill not being finalised.

On the other hand, the new “coup de theatre” by the French CNIL, despite not being very pricey at the moment, can lurk a serious threat for Google’s future activities in the Old Continent and beyond. Indeed the whole “Right to be forgotten” case itself became a too thorny issue for Google. According to the company, Google has reviewed nearly 1.5 million webpages across Europe, delisting around 40% of them. In France alone, Google has reviewed over 300,000 webpages, delisting nearly 50%.

Google has declined to comment on the matter so far, although the choice to publish a clear reply to CNIL’s fine on Le Monde, in French, is likely to show the long-standing EU-Google matter is definitely not reaching a conclusion any time soon.

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