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France finds Google may be abusing its dominance

As Google finds itself the target of an antitrust probe in Europe, a French regulator finds it may have taken advantage of its market dominance to shut out the competition.

Google may be using its leading position in the search market to weaken the competition, according to the findings of a French regulator.

Asserting that Google holds a dominant position in search advertising, the French Competition Authority said yesterday that it has found certain possible conduct on the part of Google intended to "discourage, delay, or eliminate" competitors.

Among its findings, the French regulator, or the Autorite, cited exclusivity clauses, technical obstacles, and other methods that Google imposes on its partners or customers and said that the company treats them "in a discriminatory manner or refuses to guarantee a minimum degree of transparency in the contractual relations that it establishes with them."

But rather than impose new regulations on the search giant, the Autorite is proposing what it calls "targeted responses to the identified concerns," saying that existing competition laws can be used to enforce limits to Google's actions.

As one example this year, Google had suspended the AdWords account of a company called Navx for allegedly violating policy. Navx complained to the Autorite, which found that Google's policy was unclear and lacked transparency, prompting Google to restore the account.

Google has found itself the object of increasing criticism from search providers who argue that the search giant intentionally and unfairly promotes its own content and services above those from other search sites. Fielding complaints from three specific companies, the European Commission recently launched a probe to determine if Google has violated antitrust regulations.

In response to the findings of the Autorite and the suggestions of an unfair marketplace, Google issued the following statement, which was e-mailed to CNET:

"Search ads are one of many options for advertisers. If the price of search ads rises, advertisers can and do switch to other formats, both online and offline. That's the sign of a competitive and dynamic industry."

The investigation by French Competition Authority was triggered by a request in February from France's Minister for the Economy, Finance, and Employment. Though it has no direct effect on the EC's probe, it could open up the door for other companies to level charges against Google.

"It's a shot across the bow, Google is now formally on notice that they might be vulnerable depending on what they do," Guy Lougher, a partner on the EU competition team of law firm Pinsent Masons, said, according to Reuters. "It's starting to look horribly like a rerun of the Microsoft cases."