Microsoft filed a formal complaint against Google with the European Commission on Thursday, alleging the use of unfair practices that block other search engines as well as raising several new issues beyond concerns about Google’s search rankings.
Google says that Microsoft’s complaint simply rehashes claims made by others.
The European Commission announced in November it was opening a formal probe into Google’s business practices based on complaints from three smaller European Internet firms, one of them Microsoft's price-comparison site Ciao.
Those firms claim that results for their sites are being pushed down the list when users do a search on Google; they say Google has given preferential placement to the results of its own vertical search services.
“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,” Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith wrote in a blog post detailing his firm’s complaint.
“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 wrote.
Smith also said Google restricts competing search engines from accessing all of the content available on YouTube, which Google bought in 2006. In addition, Microsoft alleges that Google has blocked Microsoft’s Windows Phones from accessing YouTube as freely as Google’s Android phones and Apple’s iPhones.
Microsoft also raises concerns about Google’s digital-books project and claims that Google is restricting the ability of its advertisers to remove data and offer it on competing online advertising platforms such as Microsoft’s.
In the past, Google has maintained that its advertisers are free to input or take out data as they please.
Google issued a short statement on Microsoft’s overall complaint, saying “We're not surprised that Microsoft has done this, since one of their subsidiaries was one of the original complainants. For our part, we continue to discuss the case with the European Commission and we're happy to explain to anyone how our business works."
The European Commission has been more aggressive in its probe of anticompetitive behavior by U.S. tech firms than have U.S. antitrust regulators. Google critics so far have not persuaded U.S. regulators to open a formal antitrust probe.
The Justice Department, however, is currently evaluating the competitive implications of Google’s proposed purchase of travel software provider ITA.
“By making these complaints public, it increases pressure on DOJ," said Gary Reback, a lawyer with Carr Ferrell who represents the British price-comparison site Foundem -- one of the three European companies that filed the original EC complaints -- as well as other online firms.
Reback also represents the Open Book Alliance, which includes Microsoft, Yahoo, and other Google competitors that oppose its book-digitization project.
But Glenn Manishin, an attorney with Duane Morris who focuses on tech and telecom antitrust issues, said he does not believe Microsoft’s complaint will have much impact in the United States. “I am … confident Microsoft has been urging DOJ for years -- at least since the aborted Google-Yahoo! deal -- to launch a broader antitrust investigation of Google, so the filing of papers before the European Commission is unlikely to affect the U.S. Justice Department one way or the other,” he said by e-mail.
Still, Google critics have gotten some attention on Capitol Hill.
While noting that he is still reviewing Microsoft’s complaint, Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wisc., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, said Microsoft’s allegations raise important competition issues that his panel will examine during an upcoming hearing. “We continue to investigate the fairness of Google search results and allegations that competitors are being unduly disadvantaged on the Google search platform,” Kohl said in a statement.
Senate Judiciary ranking member Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he hoped U.S. regulators are scrutinizing the allegations against Google. “Vigorous enforcement of the antitrust laws by regulators will help create and maintain an open, fair and competitive marketplace,” Grassley said in a statement. “I expect our regulators are monitoring the antitrust complaint brought forward by Microsoft against Google and will act accordingly if a similar complaint should be raised in the United States.”
This article appears in the March 31, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.