With new commissioner, Google faces tough times in Europe

Günther Oettinger took credit for derailing a settlement between European regulators and Google. Now, he's the incoming leader for digital issues.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read

European Commissioner Günther Oettinger addresses members of the European Parliament.
European Commissioner Günther Oettinger addresses members of the European Parliament. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Last February, Google was on the brink of settling an antitrust investigation by European regulators with relatively light consequences. Now, those days are long gone.

On Monday, Günther Oettinger, the incoming European commissioner for digital economy and society and thus newly influential in tech matters, told members of the European Parliament he was the one responsible for derailing the settlement.

"If I hadn't been opposed to it, the Google case would have been settled back in March," he said, according to The Wall Street Journal. "The Google case was proof of the energetic approach of the commission...a textbook example of how the commission can take decisions in a robust way."

Robust indeed. Last week, EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said "fresh evidence" and "solid arguments" from twenty formal complaints persuaded him Google needs to present a better settlement offer or face the more serious threat, a formal statement of objections. That can carry a penalty of up to 10 percent of a company's annual revenue for a finding that competition laws were violated.

The outcome of the case stands to affect more than just Google's finances. It also could change how hundreds of millions of people use its search and how Google expands into other domains like mobile apps and services.

The core of the case concerns whether Google has acted anticompetitively by favoring its own properties -- shopping, for example -- in search results. In part through its "Knowledge Graph" work, Google has been steadily increasing the amount of direct data found on search results, often crowding out some links to others' sites.

"Initially, ten blue links were the best answer we could give. But now we have the ability to provide direct answers to users' queries, which is much quicker and easier for them," said Rachel Whetstone, Google's senior vice president of communications, in a blog post last week rebutting News Corp.'s complaints to the European Commission about Google's search results. Google didn't respond to a request for comment for this story.

Google's rivals seem to smell blood in the water. Several -- including travel sites Yelp, Trip Advisor and HolidayCheck -- launched a new website called Focus on the User this week that seeks to turn one of Google's first operating principle against it.

The Focus on the User campaign criticizes Google for giving preference to its own Google+ property, degrading the utility of its search service and harming others who rely on it to refer customers.
The Focus on the User campaign criticizes Google for giving preference to its own Google property, degrading the utility of its search service and harming others who rely on it to refer customers. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

In particular, those rivals don't like Google's placement of links to its own Google+ social-network, which the company wants to see as a place where businesses set up accounts. Google is promoting Google+ content in search results even when Google+ ranks worse in relevance, the group said.

"What we object to is Google+ being used to attempt to provide answers to users' questions without having to be vetted by the organic algorithm in the same ways that other search results are required to, and then Google giving preference to Google+ over the results Google's own unbiased algorithm indicates provide the best answers to the users' questions," Focus on the User said.

Google will have to hash out these issues in the European Union, but Oettinger's stance won't make those negotiations any easier.

It could be Oettinger has some work to do, too, though. When discussing data-privacy issues with members of the European Parliament during Monday's hearing, he referred to the recent controversy surrounding the publication of many photos of nude celebrities stored in Apple iCloud accounts.

"If someone is dumb enough to as a celebrity take a nude photo of themselves and put it online, they surely can't expect us to protect them," he said, according to a critical account by Julia Reda, a member of parliament in the German Pirate Party.

Reda took Oettinger to task in a blog post:

The most likely sources of the photos were cloud-based phone backups. The women might not even have been aware of the backups' existence, since they are created automatically in the background on many phones. It appears that attackers were able to break their encryption due to security failures, like a service allowing an unlimited number of different passwords to be tried out in rapid succession or granting access after posing "security questions" with guessable or obtainable answers...

The person applying to be in charge of shoring up trust in the Internet so that Europeans do more business online just victim-blamed people whose personal data was accessed and spread without authorization.