Explainer: Media, ecommerce and search all have something to lose,
Larry Page and Sergey Brin were probably untroubled by fears of a European tribunal during their years cooped in a dormitory in Stanford University, rattling their keyboards as the first iteration of Google came together on their monitors. But times change.
Nowadays the search engine is one of the few firms that can upset media mogul Rupert Murdoch almost without punishment, a fact illustrated by the odd spectacle of a News Corp employee accusing other people of having a strangle on a market. In a letter to the European Commission the chief executive Robert Thomson even accused Google of "cynical management":
"The company has evolved from a wonderfully feisty, creative Silicon Valley startup to a vast, powerful, often unaccountable bureaucracy, which is sometimes contemptuous of intellectual property and routinely configures its search results in a manner that is far from objective."
News Corp’s complaint is centred around what they refer to as "exploitation" of their content on Google’s website, compounded by allegations that the search engine is a "platform for piracy" and responsible for "the spread of malicious networks". But the larger case concerns itself with competition on the site.
The case originally opened in November 2010 when the Commission decided to investigate Google’s dominance in the European search advertising market, with the firm accounting for 90% of search in Europe. As time has dragged on the remit has expanded to encompass Google Shopping, Google Maps, and YouTube, among other wings of the multinational business.
In February this year it appeared that the situation had been resolved, with Google dodging a fine by agreeing to display at least three competitors to its own products in the likes of retail, food and travel, as well as reform its advertising policies. However complaints from rivals over what is perceived to be light punishment for the firm has prompted the case to be reopened.
Joaquin Almunia, European commissioner for competition, told Bloomberg TV: "In some of those replies [to the settlement], some complainants have introduced new arguments, new data, new considerations, so we now need to analyse this and to see if we can find solutions – if Google can find solutions to some of these concerns which we consider justified, and we are in this process."
Unsurprisingly Google has not remained mute on the subject. In a letter to the Financial Times the executive chairmen Eric Schmidt argued that: "While we’re fortunate to have been very successful in Europe, Google is not ‘the gateway to the internet’." He maintains that the firm focuses on providing the most relevant information for its users, regardless of ownership.
Both Google and its critics are likely more motivated by their bottom lines than customer wellbeing, but the question for Almunia is whose interests most accurately overlap with those of consumers. Whatever judgement he comes to somebody is unlikely to be happy: and who would choose between displeasing Murdoch or Schmidt?