Europe demands Google change search algorithm again

In the latest episode of the European Union's efforts to rein in the dominant position held by Google in the search market, European rivals are demanding the American search giant reform the way it performs searches to leave more room for competing players. 

Jens Meyer/AP/File
Exhibitors of the Google company work on laptop computers in front of an illuminated sign of the Google logo in Hanover, Germany.

Google is facing renewed antitrust scrutiny in Europe over claims that its dominant position as a search engine and Internet vendor unfairly undercuts the competition. 

The European Commission is demanding concessions from the search giant based on allegations of discriminating against competitors in the way it displays search results – favoring Google products and services closer to the top of results pages. Tensions heightened on Monday when the European Commission urged Google to make further changes to a proposed antitrust settlement. Google has already made several adjustments to the proposed settlement. 

These allegations stem from a four-year-old dispute between Google and its European rivals, which also includes fellow American tech company Microsoft, who have lodged complaints over Google's monopolistic practices. Other rivals voicing grievances against Google include Foundem, Oracle, and the travel planning service TripAdvisor. 

Although Google has made concessions to European rivals' demands, which had gained support from European Competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia, Mr. Almunia came under fresh pressure last week to rein in Google. 

In an interview with Bloomberg TV, Almunia, whose term in office ends in November, said that Google's European competitors were raising new complaints and pointing to new issues with how Google conducts its business. 

"Some of these replies are very, very negative, and in some of those replies some complainants have introduced new arguments, new data, new considerations, so we now need to analyze these, and to see if we can find solutions, Google can find solutions," he said. 

While Google comprises around two-thirds of the search market in the US, in Europe, not including Russia, its dominance is nearly 90 percent. 

In a blog post Saturday, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt denied accusations that it manipulates its algorithm at the expense of competitors. He emphasized that Google is designed to give the best service possible to users, not to benefit websites. 

He dismissed the notion that Google is "the gateway to the Internet" and said it is not true that "we are promoting our own products at the expense of the competition. We show the results at the top that answer the user's queries directly." 

In February, Google agreed to leave space near the top of its European search pages on which competitors could bid. But this solution irked rivals since it essentially meant paying Google for the right to compete squarely in the marketplace. 

"The real remedy is for Google to use the same algorithm for third-party sites that it applies to its own," David Wood, a lawyer that represents Foundem and Microsoft as part of iComp (Initiative for a Competitive Online Marketplace), told BBC News.

Some competitors have expressed a desire to bring formal charges against Google. Should that happen, Google could face a potential fine of up to $5 billion.  

In the European Union, which tends to pride itself on upholding Internet privacy more rigorously than the US, wariness of American technology companies' hegemony has increased in the past year since the Edward Snowden leaks revealed rampant NSA spying. To that end, Google, along with fellow dominant American tech players such as Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and the transportation app Uber, have all recently faced increased backlashes across Europe. 

For example, in the landmark "right to be forgotten" ruling earlier this year, the European Union said EU citizens could petition search engines, notably Google, to remove personal information from search results they considered to be "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant."

And earlier this month Germany banned Uber outright from operating in the country, imposing penalties of fines up to $330,000 or even jail time for employees should the company violate the order. 

"We are afraid of Google," writes Mathias Döpfner, chief executive of the German digital publishing house Axel Springer, in an open letter to Mr. Schmidt of Google. "I must state this very clearly and frankly, because few of my colleagues dare do so publicly." 

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