BRUSSELS – When EU politicians call for the breakup of Google, it can sound like sour grapes, the anti-American backlash of an aging continent envious and fearful of the wealth and power of young U.S. tech giants.
But should any American scoff at Thursday’s nonbinding vote in the European Parliament, when lawmakers urged regulators to get tough with the search engine Goliath, they should know that behind the EU anti-trust probe of Google stand not only Europeans but U.S. competitors.
Indeed, to many in Brussels it is Google’s fellow Americans, such as Microsoft, Expedia and TripAdvisor, whose complaints and big money lobbying have driven a 4-year-old investigation by the European Commission into whether Google abuses its dominance of Internet searches to push favored websites.
“The American companies are using the European Commission as a battleground among themselves,” a senior EU official said. “They are the ones coming to us with complaints. They are the ones who are not happy when rivals present concessions and say these are not enough.”
U.S. companies are well aware of the commission’s power in the world’s biggest economic bloc. It also may seem more aggressive than its U.S. counterpart, which last year dropped its own case inquiry into Google, concluding the firm had broken no rules.
Three attempts Microsoft made to reach a settlement were turned down by EU competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia, who agreed with Google’s rivals that concessions it offered to avoid a fine of up to $5 billion were not enough. The case is now in the hands of Margrethe Vestager, the successor to Almunia.
U.S. tech firms “are all playing on a little playing field,” said Bert Foer, head of the American Antitrust Institute. “Naturally they’re going to move fastest and farthest in jurisdictions that have more favorable laws.
“While there’s not a whole lot of difference between American anti-trust law and European anti-trust law, there is a difference in enforcement style and aggressiveness right now. So it’s not surprising that a lot of the fight is over there. And it’s not surprising that a lot of the companies are American,” Foer said.
“It’s simply not about one side of the ocean against the other,” said Thomas Vinje, a partner at London law firm Clifford Chance.
“Never has a competition case brought together such a geographical or industrial breadth of concerned parties. There’s just never been anything like it,” said Vinje. “Probably never has any company exerted so much power on so many key markets.”
That is not to say that there is no anti-U.S. animus in Europe among the public and some politicians. It is a fact Google highlights in portraying itself at times as caught in Transatlantic crossfire.
Last year’s revelations of U.S. spying on the digital doings of Europeans heightened mistrust of U.S. power in the digital world, though Europeans still use Google overwhelmingly to search the Web.
Google suffered a setback this year when the EU’s supreme court upheld a “right to be forgotten,” ordering it to block links to information if people request it. It also faces legal challenges over copyright fees and over a variety of privacy concerns.
Underscoring a sense of siege following the drafting of the resolution in the European Parliament, the U.S. mission to the EU in Brussels issued a statement appealing for objectivity so that the anti-trust case was not “politicized.”
Vinje, however, said talk of anti-Americanism was overdone and accused Google executives of “pushing the line that its troubles are driven by anti-U.S. sentiments in Europe” to gloss over what he said were real concerns about its business.
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