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EU-Google Antitrust Cases vs. Google’s Net Neutrality Leadership

Google: do as we say, not as we do.

As the longtime leader,  corporatesponsor, and advocate for the net neutrality movement, Google has made net neutrality, a key part of its values and brand. 

Google’s Take Action page explains net neutrality: “The Internet should be competitive and open. … It’s a level playing field, where new entrants and established players can reach users on an equal footing. If Internet access providers can block some services and cut special deals that prioritize some companies’ content over others that would threaten the innovation that makes the Internet awesome.”

Does Google walk its net neutrality talk?

As a result of five years of investigation and evidence collection, the EU has formally charged Google with abuses of its >90% dominance in four separate markets in three separate antitrust cases -- search/shopping, Android mobile, and advertising.

Essentially these collective antitrust charges describe a Google that creates an “unlevel playing field where new entrants and established players” cannot “reach users on an equal footing,” so that Google can block some services and cut special deals” for itself, “that prioritize” Google’s “content over others” content.

Listen to how EU antitrust authorities describe their evidence that shows how Google has engaged in systematic, non-neutral, gatekeeper-like behaviors, ecosystem-wide -- against users, competitors, advertisers, publishers, adtech providers, device manufacturers, mobile operators, app developers and content providers.  

Google’s non-neutral gatekeeper treatment of competitors’ search traffic

The EU charges Google diverts users’ “traffic” from competitors’ content to Google’s.

Google has sought to maximise traffic to its own websites…” The EU’s “preliminary conclusion [is] that Google has abused its dominant position by systematically favouring its own comparison shopping service in its general search results. The additional evidence relates, amongst other things, to the way Google favours its own comparison shopping service over those of competitors, the impact of a website's prominence of display in Google's search results on its traffic, and the evolution of traffic to Google's comparison shopping service compared to its competitors. The Commission is concerned that users do not necessarily see the most relevant results in response to queries - this is to the detriment of consumers, and stifles innovation.” [Bold added]

Google’s non-neutral gatekeeper treatment of competitors’ advertising platforms

The EU charged: Google “has prevented existing and potential competitors, including other search providers and online advertising platforms, from entering and growing in this commercially important area.” For “ten years” Google contractually required: “third parties not to source search ads from Google's competitors;” and “third parties to take a minimum number of search ads from Google and reserve the most prominent space on their search results pages to Google search ads. In addition, competing search ads cannot be placed above or next to Google search ads.”

Google non-neutrally requiring advertising competitors to get Google’s gatekeeper permission to innovate in advertising

For “ten years” Google also contractually required: “third parties to obtain Google's approval before making any change to the display of competing search ads.”

Google’s non-neutral gatekeeper treatment of manufacturers and mobile operators

The EU charged: “Google has implemented a strategy on mobile devices to preserve and strengthen its dominance in general internet search. First, the practices mean that Google Search is pre-installed and set as the default, or exclusive, search service on most Android devices sold in Europe. Second, the practices appear to close off ways for rival search engines to access the market, via competing mobile browsers and operating systems. In addition, they also seem to harm consumers by stifling competition and restricting innovation in the wider mobile space.” 

Google’s non-neutral gatekeeper treatment of competitors’ app stores and mobile browsers

The EU charged: “manufacturers who wish to pre-install Google's Play Store or Search, also have to pre-install Google's Chrome browser. Thereby, Google has ensured that Google Search and Google Chrome are pre-installed on the significant majority of devices sold in the” EU. … “This strategy appears to protect and strengthen Google's dominant position in general internet search, and adversely affect competition in the market for mobile browsers.”

(Tellingly in 2009, Google’s current CEO, Sundar Pichai, complained to the EU about Microsoft’s non-neutral, gatekeeper treatment of Chrome in the browser market, and publicly lobbied the EU in a Google blog post that this non-neutral gatekeeping behavior was anticompetitive. “Internet Explorer is tied to Microsoft’s dominant computer operating system, giving it an unfair advantage over other browsers. Compare this to the mobile market, where Microsoft cannot tie Internet Explorer to a dominant operating system, and its browser therefore has a much lower usage.”)   

Google’s non-neutral gatekeeper treatment of other specialized search services and content providers

Importantly, in all three of the EU’s formal antitrust charges, the EU makes clear that it is continuing an “ongoing formal investigation under EU antitrust rules of other aspects of Google's behaviour in the EEA, including on the favourable treatment by Google in its general search results of its own other specialised search services, and concerns with regard to copying of rivals’ web content (known as 'scraping').”

Conclusion

The EU has preliminarily charged that its evidence shows that Google has abused its >90% dominant market position in four markets – search services, smart mobile operating systems, Android app stores, and search advertising – in non-neutral, gatekeeper ways that have harmed consumers, innovation and competition.  

Why these collective EU antitrust charges are so important and serious is that they together allege that Google’s abuse of its dominance in many markets brings harm to most every major Internet constituency: users, competitors, advertisers, publishers, adtech providers, device manufacturers, mobile operators, app developers and content providers.   

The purpose of this piece was straightforward -- to show that Google is well aware that many of its standard business practices are non-neutral and anticompetitive – by simply comparing the facts in the EU’s many antitrust charges with Google’s longstanding, hypocritical, public calls for a competitive level playing field on the Internet.

Google: do as we say, not as we do.

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Scott Cleland served as Deputy U.S. Coordinator for International Communications & Information Policy in the George H. W. Bush Administration. He is President of Precursor LLC, an emergent enterprise risk consultancy for Fortune 500 companies, some of which are Google competitors. He is also author of “Search & Destroy: Why You Can’t Trust Google Inc.” Cleland has testified before both the Senate and House antitrust subcommittees on Google and also before the relevant House oversight subcommittee on Google’s privacy problems.

 

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