The EU’s antitrust chief has formally accused Google of illegally using its dominance in online search to steer European consumers to its own in-house shopping services in the opening salvo of what is expected to be a defining competition case of the internet era.
Margrethe Vestager also announced the European Commission would open an investigation into Google’s Android mobile platform amid allegations it forces wireless companies into uncompetitive contracts to use its software.
Ms Vestager made clear the move against Google Shopping was potentially just the first step in her case. She said her staff continued to investigate whether other Google services, such as its travel search function, similarly advantaged the company’s in-house service providers. She vowed to widen the case if abuses were found.
“I am concerned that the company has given an unfair advantage to its own comparison shopping service, in breach of EU antitrust rules,” Ms Vestager said. “Google now has the opportunity to convince the commission to the contrary.”
In an outline of its so-called statement of objections, the commission said that the US-based tech giant “systematically positions and prominently displays” its own shopping service in search results regardless of its merits, arguing the conduct started in 2008.
The commission said the conduct enabled Google’s service to achieve “higher rates of growth, to the detriment of rival comparison shopping services”.
Shopping was the first area in which the commission received a complaint over Google’s conduct, from the British price comparison site, Foundem. The complaints have since snowballed to include online travel services such as Expedia, as well as large players including Microsoft, and French and German publishers.
Google now has 10 weeks to respond and allay the commission’s concerns. It also has a right to a hearing in the coming months, normally attended by national representatives, in which all the main arguments can be aired.
If Google’s defence is unsuccessful, it faces a large fine, theoretically as much as 10 per cent of the previous year’s turnover, some $66bn in 2014.