The European Union has two primary functions: to preside over slow-moving continent-wide fiscal disasters, and to give Google a hard time. EU regulators generally prefer the latter part of their mission, since it’s more fun, so today EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager announced a formal antitrust complaint against the search kingpin. Vestager charges that Google abuses its dominant market position by placing comparison-shopping results on certain searches. (The story was reported by the BBC, among others.)
The feature that has raised the EU’s ire is one you’ve probably seen before. You conduct a Google search for, say, a 55-gallon drum of lube, and above the main search results, Google will display a few product listings from stores on the web, some of which may be sponsored links. The European Union says this is sanctionable behavior because Google shouldn’t be using its prime position in general search to bolster its comparison-shopping service. Google’s stance is that if people are looking to buy a product, any self-respecting search engine will help them buy that product. Oh, you two! Can’t we just call the whole thing off?
Actually, Google has tried mightily to call the whole thing off, as today’s announcement is the latest development in a five-year antitrust inquiry that the search company has attempted to settle a number of times. But every time Google has offered a self-serving solution—the company once generously offered to let competitors like Yelp pay for their results to be displayed alongside Google’s—European internet companies have understandably cried foul, and so the endless investigation has continued.
Google got advance word that today’s announcement was coming (presumably by sifting through EU commissioners’ Gmail accounts), so Google executive Amit Singhal had a blog post at the ready that outlines the company’s defense. The post argues that antitrust charges are inappropriate because Google’s share of e-commerce traffic is dwarfed by other shopping sites like Amazon and eBay—so, in other words, there’s plenty of competition. The post is illustrated with a series of colorful graphs that show how few people actually use Google Shopping, how much worse it is than its competitors, and how Google Shopping is generally blecch yucch awful. “Google Shopping fucking sucks,” the title of the blog post does not read, but it might as well. Antitrust cases always bring out that “woe is me” spirit in corporate executives.
The EU also announced today that it is launching a separate investigation into Google’s bundling of apps and service on its Android mobile operating system. And both of these antitrust cases are separate from last year’s “right to be forgotten” ruling, which allowed people to request that Google remove embarrassing personal information from search results. Point is, the EU has been a pain in Google’s ass for a while now, and it doesn’t appear likely to stop anytime soon.