EU wants Google to show consumers best comparison shopping sites

The European Commission sends Google antitrust charge sheet over shopping searches.

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM (APRIL 15, 2015) (REUTERS) – The European Union accused Google Inc on Wednesday (April 15) of cheating competitors by distorting Internet search results to favour its shopping service, and launched another antitrust investigation into its Android mobile operating system.

Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said the U.S. tech giant, which dominates Internet search engines worldwide, had been sent a Statement of Objections – effectively a charge sheet – to which it can respond. She also said other probes into Google’s business practices would continue.

“We do not wish to interfere with screen design, with design choices, with how things are presented on the screen as such or how the algorithm works. This is not what we’re thinking about,” Vestager told reporters in Brussels.

“Rather, what we would like to see, is that consumers are certain to see the best comparison shopping results, and they should not just be shown the Google Shopping results, if they are not the most relevant response to the query,” she said.

Google in a written statement said it strongly disagreed with the European Commission and would make the case that its products have fostered competition and benefited consumers.

Vestager told reporters the Commission’s investigation showed that when a consumer enters a shopping-related query in Google’s search engine, Google’s comparison shopping product is systematically displayed prominently at the top of the search results.

“This display is irrespective of whether it is the most relevant response to the query,” Vestager added.

The focus on the ranking of searches for shopping sites – Google has its own service called Google Shopping – did not address all complaints lodged with the Commission by competitors, large and small, in Europe and the United States, which say Google has hurt their business.

Vestager said her antitrust staff would continue to investigate other areas of concern, including alleged “web scraping” to copy rivals’ content, and restrictive practices on advertising.

The Commission, whose control of antitrust matters across the wealthy 28-nation bloc gives it a major say in the fate of global corporations, can fine firms up to 10 percent of their annual sales, in Google’s case up to $6.6 billion.

If it finds that companies are abusing a dominant market position, the EU regulator can also demand sweeping changes to their business practices, as it did with U.S. software giant Microsoft in 2004 and chip-maker Intel in 2009. Its record antitrust fine was 1.09 billion euros on Intel.

“If an infringement is proven, a case focusing on comparison shopping could potentially establish a broader precedence for enforcing EU competition rules in other instances of Google favouring its own services over competitive services,” Vestager told reporters.

Google initially has 10 weeks to respond to the charges and can demand a hearing. A final resolution – quite possibly involving court action if Google does not choose to settle – is likely to take many months and probably years.