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Does the European Google Antitrust Case Have Any Merit?

July 12, 2015

Since 2009, Google has been the subject of antitrust lawsuits from almost 20 companies across Europe. Although the plaintiffs in these cases come from different sectors of the tech industry, their complaints are universal – that Google is too big, too powerful, and isn’t playing fair.

At the heart of the matter lies Google’s dominance in the European search market, and its engagement in business practices that other tech companies operating in the sector perceive as unfair.

Although Google already settled in several cases, and relented to provide more real estate to competing businesses in European SERPs, the appointment of a new European competition commissioner could reignite the debate all over again. Margrethe Vestager, who formally takes office tomorrow, could levy additional charges against Google, a move that could cost the search giant billions of dollars.

Google antitrust European Union flag

Image via Mac Observer

Unfortunately for Microsoft and the rest of the plaintiffs, their case has no merit.

Sore Losers

The biggest, and most frequently vocal, opponent to Google in Europe is Microsoft - ironic, for those who remember the FTC's investigation of Microsoft in the early 1990s and the subsequent legal battle that unfolded.

Google currently enjoys as much as 96% of the search industry market share in Europe, with Bing carving out just 3%. Against such overwhelming opposition, it’s easy to see why Microsoft would rather take its chances in the European courts than accept the fact that Google has such a deep market penetration simply by virtue of offering a superior, more popular product.

However, it’s the smaller companies that have even less of a case against Google.

In an interview with NPR, Shivaun Raff, founder of price comparison service Foundem, said that her business has “suffered” due to shady, underhanded tactics by Google.

“Google is manipulating its search results to increase its profits,” Raff told the news source.

The point Raff – and many others – seem to be missing is that this is Google’s right as a business.

Google is NOT a Public Service

I’m not against antitrust suits on principle. I believe that, at times, some wider regulatory oversight is required to ensure a level playing field. The proposed Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger, which would significantly weaken net neutrality, is a prime example.

Google antitrust Comcast monopoly map

However, these cases differ in that internet access can – and should – be considered a public utility. Twenty years ago, when the web as we now know it was in its infancy, internet access was considered a luxury, and was far from essential to most households. However, times have changed, and now internet access drives much of society, necessitating an alternate approach to how the telecoms industry is regulated.

Google, on the other hand, is NOT a public service. Despite its ubiquity (particularly in Europe), Google has always been a business first and foremost. As we’ve discussed at length in the past, the majority of Google’s considerable revenues comes from its advertising business, and everything Google does – from changes to the SERPs to adjustment of its algorithms – is designed to increase profit by offering users a superior search engine.

Google antitrust Shopping ads

The question is not why should Google be allowed to prioritize its own commercial services, such as Google Shopping, but why shouldn’t it?

Popularity Contests

Speaking frankly, sites such as Foundem will never be able to compete with Google, and it’s got nothing to do with how Google prioritizes its own Shopping results in the SERPs. The reason that companies such as Foundem are virtually guaranteed to fail is that they have chosen to compete against one of the largest, most well-funded companies on the planet.

Google antitrust Monopoly board

Now, before you say it, yes – competition is a good thing for consumers, and monopolies genuinely reduce consumer choice and stifle innovation. However, what happens when consumers actively choose services offered by the biggest and best in the business?

Nobody is forced to use Google, and there are plenty of smaller search engines that offer excellent services. Duck Duck Go, for example, is an excellent search engine that offers not only relevant results, but a secure, (relatively) anonymous search experience. Best of all? Duck Duck Go was created by one man, Gabriel Weinberg, and his small startup is still based in Paoli, a tiny suburb of Philadelphia.

Industry insiders frequently cite Duck Duck Go as one of Google’s most serious competitors, proving that superior products and services are the best way to tip the balance of power from the supposedly evil giants like Google.

Google antitrust Duck Duck Go Founder Gabriel Weinberg

Duck Duck Go Founder Gabriel Weinberg. Photo via Fast Company.

Innovate, Don’t Litigate

It’s true that Google seems to have strayed far from its former motto of “Don’t Be Evil.” Its complicity in the recent NSA domestic surveillance revelations and its apparent leniency toward larger, wealthier advertisers with regard to black-hat SEO have all (rightfully) drawn fierce criticism.

It’s also true that many small businesses are forced to play by the unspoken rules of a game with only one referee – Google – and that sometimes, the little guys don’t always win. This isn’t fair, and in a utopian world, there would be another way. For now, Google holds all the cards. If businesses don’t like it, nobody’s forcing them to play.

Google antitrust European court

The answer in Europe is not going to be found in the courts. Microsoft and the other plaintiffs in the ongoing antitrust case should focus on delivering the type of experience users have come to expect. Innovation, not litigation, is what will win the battle against Google’s dominance.

The sooner everybody realizes this, stops crying foul, and starts focusing on improving their products, the better.

Dan Shewan

Originally from the U.K., Dan Shewan is a journalist and web content specialist who now lives and writes in New England. Dan’s work has appeared in a wide range of publications in print and online, including The Guardian, The Daily Beast, Pacific Standard magazine, The Independent, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and many other outlets.