EU begins Google investigation


EUROPEAN REGULATORS have started a formal antitrust inquiry into Google over “very serious” allegations that the search engine giant abused its dominant position.

The in-depth investigation by European competition commissioner Joaquín Almunia, following complaints from rival search engine operators, comes after a 10-month preliminary inquiry. It relates to Google’s operations throughout Europe and is likely to proceed for several months.

Google would face large fines if Mr Almunia finds it breached European law, although the commission said the opening of formal proceedings did not imply it held proof of any infringements.

The investigation brings Google into the company of other US IT titans that have been investigated by the commission’s powerful antitrust division.

Google disclosed last February that the preliminary inquiry was under way and identified the complainants: Ciao! from Bing, a unit of Microsoft; UK price comparison site Foundem, which is part of a group partly funded by Microsoft; and, a French legal search engine.

The three allege “unfair” treatment of their services in Google’s unpaid and sponsored results in violation of EU antitrust law. They also allege “preferential” placement of Google’s own services in search results.

The commission will investigate whether Google has abused a dominant market position by “allegedly lowering the ranking of unpaid search results of competing services which are specialised in providing users with specific online content such as price comparisons . . . and by according preferential placement to the results of its own . . . services,” the EU executive said.

The commission will also look into allegations that Google lowered the “Quality Score” for sponsored links of competing services. The Quality Score is one of the factors that determine the price paid to Google by advertisers.

A Google spokesman said the company never took action “to intentionally hurt competing services”. While he said Google worked hard to do the right thing by users of its services, there was always room for improvement. “We’ll be working with the commission to address any concerns.”