Vestager kicks off new chapter in Google Shopping probe
The European Commission is investigating whether Google has done enough to resolve concerns that led to a €2.42 billion antitrust sanction in June, sending rival sites a list of questions to see if they benefited from the search giant’s remedies.
The questionnaire, obtained by POLITICO, is the clearest indication yet that Margrethe Vestager, Europe’s competition boss, could be preparing for a new assault against Google, raising the prospect of further fines.
Google’s rivals argue that its response to a June verdict concerning its Google Shopping service fell far short of re-establishing fair competition in the EU.
To level the playing field, they say that Vestager should use her powers to hit the company with fines for non-compliance that can go up to €12 million a day. Backdated to end-September, when Google was meant to comply, that could mean a total fine of up to €1.6 billion.
Richard Stables, CEO of price comparison website Kelkoo, called the fresh scrutiny “very good news.”
Google’s remedy was “great for Google and rubbish for everyone else,” he said, adding that he believed the Commission was “taking things very seriously” and would sanction Google for falling short on its Google Shopping remedy.
Kelkoo echoed broader dissatisfaction with Google’s remedies. According to research by Searchmetrics, 99.6 percent of all ads displayed in Google’s box in the U.K. were placed by Google Shopping — suggesting that rivals are struggling to get access.
The prospect of a fresh row over Google’s compliance with a Commission ruling recalls the titanic battle that opposed EU regulators and Microsoft in the 2000s.
Back then, the software giant’s failure to comply had seen its original sanction of €497 million almost quadruple.
In Google’s case, a ruling of non-compliance remains far off.
But the detail and scope of the 36 questions — from demanding contracts to requesting detailed pricing data on a country-by-country basis — indicate that Commission investigators are taking those concerns very seriously.
“This is a case that will remain on our working desk,” Vestager told reporters toward the end of 2017.
Show us your contracts
Antitrust regulators are tightening the screws on Google after hearing complaints from a range of company rivals.
The Commission has formally charged two Google business lines — the Android mobile operating system and AdSense for Search — with infringing the bloc’s competition rules.
Meanwhile, rivals from Yelp to Tripadvisor to NewsCorp want Vestager to apply the principles of her Google Shopping decision to their particular gripes.
Heightening the pressure on Google, Vestager’s crusading stance appears to have prompted greater scrutiny of Google globally: Earlier this month the Indian competition authority sanctioned Google, following in the footsteps of Russia’s antitrust body, while in the U.S. there are growing calls for regulators to revisit a 2013 settlement with the search giant.
The Commission sanctioned Google in June 2016, ordering it to stop giving its Google Shopping service preferential treatment on its search results page. Google has appealed.
Vestager’s office found that Google had placed Google Shopping in a box at the top of the page while demoting rival product comparison sites like Foundem or Kelkoo. In response, Google said it would allow rival websites to bid to place ads in the box.
Google submitted its own report on the remedy last month. The Commission has hired outside consultants to monitor the remedy.
However, many rivals have criticized that solution.
The Commission is now trying to obtain detailed information from comparison websites about their dealings with Google when trying to place ads in the box, and their relationships with merchants that sell the advertised products.
The Commission wants copies of agreements between price comparison websites and their five largest merchants in each country where they operate, as well as detailed information on pricing.
It also wants to know how much feedback Google provides when rejecting bids to place ads, and how much data it shares about the performance of ads that are displayed.
Additionally, investigators are asking about the relationship between Google, which runs the box, and its Google Shopping comparison service, which competes with rivals to place ads in the box.
The logo of Google shopping service is pictured on a smartphone | Ritchie B. Tongo/EPA
“If you believe or have any information to suggest that [Google Shopping] may have any advantages over you … please explain,” the questionnaire states.
Investigators say they want to establish whether an “efficiently operating comparison search service” could genuinely compete with Google’s own service.
The questionnaire does not ask any questions about where the websites appear in Google’s natural ranking.
Google submitted its own report on the remedy last month. The Commission has hired outside consultants — accounting giant KPMG and search engine optimization and marketing specialist Mathers — to monitor the remedy.
The Commission had no comment.
Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment.