EU could rule on Google antitrust probe in March

The European Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia tells Reuters the decision to file a formal complaint against Google could happen as early as March.

Don Reisinger
CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
3 min read

The European Union could make a decision as early as March on whether or not it'll file a formal antitrust complaint against Google, according to a news report.

"I will receive comments from the case team towards the end of the first quarter," European Competition Commission Joaquin Almunia told Reuters in an interview published today. "I do not expect anything sooner. Let us see."

The fact that the European Union could come to a decision so soon after launching an investigation is somewhat surprising. In the vast majority of antitrust cases, the EU can take several years to fully investigate a company before filing a complaint. If the commission makes a determination in March, it would have taken a little over a year.

The trouble started in November 2010 when the European Commission first launched its investigation into Google. The organization said at the time that its investigation followed complaints from search providers, U.K.-based price comparison site Foundem, French legal search service ejustice.fr, and Microsoft-owned U.K. search engine Ciao. The European Commission said it was going to specifically examine whether Google artificially lowered rankings while boosting its own services.

Smelling blood, Microsoft last year filed a formal complaint with the European Commission, arguing the search company "has taken to entrench its dominance in the markets for online search and search advertising to the detriment of European consumers."

"How does it do this?" Microsoft senior vice president and general counsel, Brad Smith, asked at the time. "Google has built its business on indexing and displaying snippets of other organizations' Web content. It understands as well as anyone that search engines depend upon the openness of the Web in order to function properly, and it's quick to complain when others undermine this.

"Unfortunately, Google has engaged in a broadening pattern of walling off access to content and data that competitors need to provide search results to consumers and to attract advertisers," Smith concluded.

Google, which has indicated that it will cooperate with investigators, came under fire earlier this month after a pay-for-post campaign run by London-based Unruly Media included low-quality content related to Google Chrome. At least one of the posts included in that campaign had a hyperlink pointing users to the Chrome download page, thus helping it achieve higher rankings in Google search results.

However, paying people to include such links violates Google's Webmaster guidelines. In response, the company said that it had lowered its Chrome download site's PageRank for at least 60 days to discipline itself for violating the rules.

"We've investigated and are taking manual action to demote www.google.com/chrome and lower the site's PageRank for a period of at least 60 days," Google told SearchEngineLand in a statement earlier this month. "We strive to enforce Google's Webmaster guidelines consistently in order to provide better search results for users.

"While Google did not authorize this campaign, and we can find no remaining violations of our Webmaster guidelines, we believe Google should be held to a higher standard, so we have taken stricter action than we would against a typical site," the company continued.

Although that went a long way in quelling the outcry, the company might not be able to so easily sidestep a complaint the EU could level against it in March. What's worse, it's not just Europe Google needs to worry about. As Reuters points out, the U.S. is also currently investigating Google's business practices, and according to the news outlet's source, that probe is now expanding to Google+.

Google did not immediately respond to CNET's request for comment on the Reuters report.