Google may not give much thanks for the gift Europe is about to hand it on Thanksgiving this year.
The European Parliament could make this Thanksgiving Day a rather unpalatable one for senior executives at Google. Just as these execs tuck into their turkeys, the Parliament is expected to vote on a motion calling for "unbundling search engines from other commercial services."
Though the motion does not actually name Google, it is clearly aimed at curbing the search company's growing dominance in Europe. Recent figures indicate that Google's search engine owns 90% of the European web search business -- significantly higher than in many other regions.
The irony is that, even if the motion passed -- and it has a very good chance of doing so, with support from the two biggest blocs in the assembly, the European People's Party and the Socialists -- the decision would have limited immediate impact on any search company's business activities. The Parliament lacks the power to enforce such a ruling. The aim of the gambit is to cajole the European Union's executive arm, the European Commission, to take a more forceful attitude in attempting to reduce Google's commercial dominance, either through ongoing (now four years long) antitrust investigations or through new laws that would curb its reach.
When, or if, the Commission does come up with any legislation that a company like Google must divorce its search engine activities from other commercial operations, the Parliament will act as the final arbiter.
The timing of the move probably has a lot to do with the yearly changing of the guard within the Commission, which happened a few weeks ago. The outgoing commissioner responsible for competition issues, Joaquin Almunia, has battled for years to prove that Google favored its own products and services over and above competitors' search engines. A deal of sorts was reached this year; Google agreed to display search results in the same way as rivals but would not have to pay a fine or change its corporate structure. This was bitterly criticized by some European governments, notably Germany and France, and by some of the other commissioners.
In September, the EC formally reopened the investigation, following increased pressure from some of the original complainants. German publishers, in particular, were incensed that nothing had changed in regard to Google using its content in offerings such as Google News. The critics insist that Google News is stealing copyright by linking to articles using headlines, and that it should be paying for the use of that copyrighted material. The publishers used their not-insignificant influence to change German law to reflect this. As a result, Google stopped including German media in its index. At that point, traffic to their sites plummeted. Things seem to have reverted to the status quo.
To complicate matters even further, the Commission recently opened other fronts within the investigation, including Google's making the Chrome browser standard on all handsets using its Android OS.
As a parting shot, Almunia said the ongoing dispute had the makings of another EC-versus-Microsoft anticompetitive investigation. That probe focused on Microsoft's alleged abuse of its position as the dominant supplier of computer operating systems, leading to huge, multiple fines. The case took more than 16 years to resolve. It ended when the software firm reluctantly agreed to offer users in Europe a choice of browsers upon installation. At the time, it was regarded (by many in the US) as one of the most brazen assaults on a technology group's power -- until now perhaps. And, of course, it did not lead to the US government coming close to forcing Microsoft to split up its business operations.
Now the baton has passed to the new competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, the former Danish economy minister. Will she be as eager to avoid divestiture orders and other sanctions as her predecessor was? In her first official comments, she indicated that she wants to listen to both Google and the numerous complainants before deciding how to proceed with the antitrust inquiry.
That seemed to be enough for two prominent members of the European Parliament: Andreas Schwab from Germany (perhaps no surprise there) and Ramon Tremosa of Spain, joint sponsors of the motion. "We are just pointing out there are tools the Commission can use," Schwab told the Financial Times (subscription required). "Unbundling cannot be excluded."
Google has declined to comment on the matter, but others have been less reluctant to criticize the timing and the intent. "The increased politicization of the Google competition investigation is deeply troubling," Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, said in a press release. "We have often sided with EU and US competition authorities in support of vigorous enforcement even when focused on our industry's companies when the facts and law justified action."
Black stressed that the whole case has much wider implications "and threatens the entire Internet economy."
— John Walko is a UK journalist who writes about technology.