Google on EU troubles: ‘We don’t always get it right

 

 

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Google is in hot water in Europe, and its head of European operations is trying to cool things off.

The company’s chief in the region, Matt Brittin, told Politico in an interview published Friday that he offered the European Union an olive branch of sorts, saying that his company had failed to understand Europe and its needs, didn’t have enough people on the ground to have “conversations” with European policymakers, and looked too much “like a West Coast-driven, liberal values thing.”

“We don’t always get it right,” Brittin, who took over Google’s European operations in February, told Politico. “As far as Europe is concerned: we get it. We understand that people here are not the same in their attitudes to everything as people in America.”

Brittin’s comments appear to be an attempt by Google to show contrition as it faces the possibility of billions of dollars in fines. In April, EU Competition Commissioner Magrethe Vestager accused Google of abusing its position as the leading search engine in Europe in order to hurt competition. The action, called a statement of objections, argues that Google promoted its own services, like Gmail and Google Maps, to the detriment of its competitors. The accusations could eventually lead to a fine of up to $6.6 billion for Google if it’s found to be engaging in malicious behavior.

“Dominance as such is not a problem,” Vestager said in April. “However, dominant companies have a responsibility not to abuse their powerful market position by restricting competition either in markets where they’re dominant or in neighboring markets.”

Google tried on three occasions to settle the case with the European Commission before the statement of objections was even issued. Last year, Google and the Commission came to a tentative settlement that would have forced the company to display search results for all services, including its own, in the same way. The company wouldn’t have been required to pay a fine.

In September, however, European regulators, who had preliminarily agreed to the idea, said that they had received “fresh evidence” and “solid arguments” from 20 formal complaints. Those complaints, which came from competitors like Microsoft, prompted the regulators to send Google back to the drawing board.

“We now need to see if Google can address these issues and allay our concerns,” Joaquin Almunia said at the time, while he served as the EU’s competition commissioner. If Google’s response doesn’t satisfy the commission, the “logical next step is to prepare a statement of objections,” Almunia had said, referring to formal charges.

After Vestager picked up where Almunia left off last year and filed the statement of objections in April, Google responded that the charges were unfounded. In a blog post titled “The Search for Harm,” Google pointed to shopping and travel services — two areas of concern in Vestager’s complaint — as evidence that competition was alive and well in Europe.

“If you look at shopping…it’s clear that (a) there’s a ton of competition (including from Amazon and eBay, two of the biggest shopping sites in the world) and (b) Google’s shopping results have not … harmed the competition,” Amit Singhal, senior vice president of Google search, said in the blog post.

Although in his comments to Politico Brittin sounds a bit more willing to accept his company’s faults, he still argued that Google is acting lawfully. He told Politico that “no evidence” has been brought forth to prove that Google is abusing its dominance in search to hurt competition, adding that his company is not the only portal to the Internet and is actually facing competition from mobile devices.

“Over that five-year period the world’s changed, right; we’ve all got the entire Internet in our pocket,” Brittin told Politico. “There is a big shift in how we’re accessing information and I think there has never been a more competitive time than this in terms of the choices that consumers have.

The mobile-competition defense, however, is one that Vestager and her office may not buy. In addition to announcing the complaint against Google search, Vestager said that her office was launching an investigation into Google’s Android platform to determine whether the operating system, which isrunning on eight out of 10 devices worldwide, is in a dominant position and hurting both competitors and small developers.

Vestager’s office is particularly interested in whether Google is pushing developers and hardware vendors to integrate its own services, like search or Google ads, into their Android products. If that’s the case, the EU may disagree with Brittin and argue that even when users opt for a mobile device rather than Google search, they’re still living in Google’s world.

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