Google critics pile pressure on EU's top antitrust official to get tougher on the tech giant
- A group of 135 tech companies wrote to EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager claiming Google favors its own services in web searches.
- Google, which has been hit by a total of $9.7 billion in antitrust fines from the EU, rejected claims that it gives "preference" to certain companies.
- Vestager, who is preparing ground-breaking new digital regulation, is coming under increased pressure to take further action against Google.
LONDON — Europe's top competition official is coming under renewed pressure to revisit some of its historic cases against Google, as regulators around the world look to rein in Big Tech over antitrust abuses.
On Thursday, a group of 135 tech companies — including Tripadvisor, Booking.com and Trivago — wrote to the EU's Margrethe Vestager calling on her to end Google's alleged favoring of its own services in web searches. The list of signatories mainly consisted of travel, accommodation and recruitment firms.
They cited a landmark 2017 ruling from the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, claiming Google abused its market power to favor its shopping comparison service, Google Shopping. The bloc has so far fined Google a total of over 8.2 billion euros ($9.7 billion) for competition abuses — it has appealed each fine.
The companies, some of which have been known to criticize Google in the past, claimed the internet giant uses its "OneBox" tool — which shows information above and is distinct from other search results — to keep users within its own service, preventing them from visiting other more relevant products.
"The undersigning companies urge the Commission to enforce Google's compliance with the Google Search (Shopping) decision and to take all necessary measures to stop the favouring and provision of other Google services within its general search results pages," the group wrote.
For its part, Google rejected claims that it gives "preference (to) specific companies or commercial rivals over others."
"People expect Google to give them the most relevant, high quality search results that they can trust," a spokesperson for the company said, adding it provides "helpful services which create more choice and competition for Europeans."
A Commission spokesperson said Vestager's office had received the letter and will reply "in due course." They highlighted new regulation on digital services and markets which is due to be presented in early December. But the firms say they're at risk of being "disintermediated" by Google and can't wait for such new rules to arrive.
It's not the first time companies have collectively lobbied the EU to get tougher on Google.
Last month, for instance, a group of alternative search engines including U.S.-based DuckDuckGo, Germany's Ecosia and France's Qwant wrote to Vestager requesting a meeting with Google. They are unhappy with an auction process established by Google to address EU competition concerns with its Android phone software.
"This is an unprecedented amount of pressure being applied by Europe's tech sector," Sophie Dembinski, head of public policy at Ecosia, told CNBC. Ecosia is a member of the lobby group Fairsearch, which signed the new letter that was sent to the Commission on Thursday.
"Our view on this is straightforward — we take issue with Google owning almost every entrance to the internet (Chrome, its search engine, Android, YouTube, Gmail, as well as default search status on almost every major browser)."
Ecosia and its other search peers are hoping to get a meeting with Vestager to address Google's remedy to a 2018 antitrust ruling that it favored its own search engine within Android.
Google introduced a preference menu to the setup process for European Android users — but companies have to pay for the privilege to be featured through a blind auction, something Google's smaller rivals complain favors cash-rich competitors like Microsoft's Bing.
"We are deeply dissatisfied with the so-called remedy created by Google to address the adverse effects of its anticompetitive conduct in the Android case," the search companies said in their letter to Vestager.
Again, Google insisted it wasn't giving preference to any specific services, instead claiming its goal was "to give all search providers equal opportunity to bid." The EU said it would reply "in due course."
"Google faces no serious competition in online search, and has leveraged its domination of the arena at the expense of advertising partners and consumers in Europe and around the world," Johannes Reck, the co-founder and CEO of online travel agency GetYourGuide, told CNBC.
"We urge Ms. Vestager and the Commission to take the necessary step of leveling the playing field by regulating Google as requested in the public letter."
GetYourGuide, Trivago and HomeToGo — all of which are based out of Germany — have been engaged in a bitter feud with the search giant about their unpaid advertising bills since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Such firms have been significantly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and associated stay-at-home orders.
Global antitrust fight
Still, Vestager may have her hands full with ongoing probes into other massive U.S. tech companies.
On Tuesday, she accused Amazon of breaching European antitrust rules by using independent sellers' data for its own benefit. Meanwhile, she is also investigating claims that Apple's App Store and Apple Pay platforms are engaged in anti-competitive practices, while also fighting the iPhone maker in a $15 billion Irish tax battle.
She is also about to unveil the landmark digital rules that could have big implications for large tech companies, potentially forcing them to open up to authorities about their secretive recommendation algorithms.
Nevertheless, EU antitrust regulators have long been at the forefront of a battle against Big Tech. Now, the U.S. Department of Justice is bringing a major antitrust lawsuit against Google, while House Democrats unveiled an extensive antitrust report on the "monopoly power" of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.
On Friday, Qwant wrote to U.S. Attorney General William Barr to share its concerns about "unfair" commercial practices from Google, as part of the DOJ's antitrust proceedings. The firm's CEO, Jean-Claude Ghinozzi, claimed Google "is abusing its dominant position to prevent competition from developing."
Google, without commenting on Qwant's letter, called the DOJ complaint "deeply flawed," claiming "people use Google because they choose to, not because they're forced to, or because they can't find alternatives." The DOJ was not immediately available for comment.
– CNBC.com's Sam Shead, Silvia Amaro and Lauren Feiner contributed to this report.
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