Europe Widens Antitrust Probe Of Google Around Ad Contracts, Content Scraping
The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that The European Commission (EC) is expanding its antitrust probe of Google. Currently, the EC is in the late stages of its vertical search inquiry and has filed formal charges, which Google has until August 31 to rebut. It’s at an earlier stage of investigating Google’s management of the […]
The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that The European Commission (EC) is expanding its antitrust probe of Google. Currently, the EC is in the late stages of its vertical search inquiry and has filed formal charges, which Google has until August 31 to rebut. It’s at an earlier stage of investigating Google’s management of the Android operating system.
According to the Journal report, the EC is now investigating whether Google “abuses its dominance in advertising contracts with website operators and copies content from rival sites.” The first question goes to whether Google prevents online publishers from using rival advertising systems on their sites. This was initially investigated in Europe in 2010. The issue is now being exhumed amid a growing sense of Google’s vulnerability.
The second question, about “scraping,” concerns whether Google “copies” content from others and uses it for its own competitive advantage. This came up several years ago when Google was indexing third-party reviews and incorporating them into its mapping or other local results. The issue was part of the US Federal Trade Commission antitrust investigation and settlement. Prior to that settlement, Google stopped indexing reviews from Yelp and TripAdvisor in local results.
The new European allegation appears to be a broader complaint about Google’s use of third-party content more generally. I have not seen the specific allegations. But “copying” might be seen as another description of “indexing.” In a basic sense, that’s what Google does. It’s Google’s raison d’etre, if you will.
In particular, the indexing of news-publisher content has been a contentious issue in Europe, as several countries have passed restrictive (or draconian) copyright laws intended to extract content-licensing payments from Google. The company has resisted, in one case (Spain) shuttering Google News. In every case, the strategy has backfired, and publishers have seen traffic and revenue losses. News Corp, long a Google critic, is one of the primary complainants before the EC.
Antitrust Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, since taking the job last year, has emerged as something of a Google hawk and is signaling a much more aggressive posture toward the company. There is great antipathy toward Google in some quarters in Europe, where the company is seen as a kind of threat to European economies and institutions or as an instrument of US surveillance, or both.
A representative quote, cited in the article, is from Thomas Höppner, an attorney representing some of the Google complainants. “[Publishers] bear all the costs for creating the content while Google reaps the commercial benefits by merely copying and reusing the content in its own service.”
The implication is that Google should pay a license to any publisher whose content it indexes. It also represents a basic misunderstanding of the function of a search engine.
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