What to think: Google vs the EC

Is the search giant about to come a cropper in Europe? Here's our potted guide

According to the European Commission, Google hasn’t been living by the “don’t be evil” motto its corporate literature espouses.

The Commission today filed charges alleging that the company had been “abusing its dominant position” in the internet search market.

What’s the stink over?

The European Commission has levelled a Statement of Objections against Google, saying that the company has “systematically” favoured its own shopping comparison service over rivals in search results. If true, that’s a breach of EU antitrust rules.

And Google’s Euro woes don’t end there: the Commission is also opening a separate investigation into similar anti-competition behaviour concerning the Android operating system.

What does Google say about it all?

Unsurprisingly, Google doesn’t feel like it’s done anything wrong. In a blog post entitled “The Search for Harm”, the company says it “respectfully but strongly” disagrees with the Statement of Objections, and that while Google remains the most popular search engine “people can now find and access information in numerous different ways – and allegations of harm, for consumers and competitors, have proved wide of the mark”.

Google’s argument is that people actually have more choice than ever in how they search for information thanks to numerous search engines, the rise of personal assistants like Siri and Cortana, specialised shopping services like Amazon, eBay and Idealo, and social-based services like Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter. The blog post also features various graphs showing how Google Shopping is just one of many popular (and far from the most popular) shopping sites in Germany, France and the UK.

Google also stated in its original blog post that less than 10 percent of traffic to The Guardian’s site came from Google search, a claim which has since proved to be incorrect. It turns out about half does. Google has now corrected its error and apologised.

What happens next?

Google will have its day – or more likely, many of them – in court. It has the opportunity to convince the Commission that it’s playing by the rules. And if it can’t…

What could be the outcome?

It could all turn out quite disastrously for the search giant's European operations. Not only will there be a fine levied (as much as US$6.6 billion – no small sum even for a company of Google’s size), but Google will be likely be forced to change the way it operates as a business.

Back in 2007, the EU fined Microsoft €860 million for what it deemed antitrust activities, as well as forcing the company to release a version of Windows without Windows Media Player and reveal various details about its server products. Some feel Microsoft has never really recovered in Europe as a result of that ruling.

And what about the Android thing?

The European Commission hasn’t formally levelled any Statement of Objections against Google here, but is investigating the company’s partner agreements concerning Android devices. The crux seems to be that it suspects Google of “illegally hindering the development and marketing” of rival services and apps on non-Google Android phones by “requiring or incentivising smartphone and tablet manufacturers to exclusively pre-install Google’s own applications and services”. Again, it’s about Google allegedly abusing its dominance within a market for its own gain.

Google has posted another blog entry about Android, pointing out that the operating system is open source, available for anyone to use free-of-charge; that it has paid out over US$7 billion to app developers over the past year through Play Store apps; that many of Google’s competitors’ apps come pre-installed on Android devices; and that developers can choose to make apps for any or all mobile operating systems – nobody’s forcing anybody to just make Android apps.

It’s an interesting time for Google in Europe at the moment, and the whole tech world is sure to be watching with interest. Might the EU effectively de-claw the biggest name in web search? It’s far too early to say, but big changes could be afoot for one of tech’s titans.