Streetmap’s Loss Against Google A ‘Blow For British Start-Ups’

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The High Court ruling means it will be more difficult for small businesses to bring competition cases against dominant players, Streetmap argues

The loss of a competition case brought by UK-based digital map provider Streetmap against Google in in the High Court is a blow for small British businesses, Streetmap has argued.

The company, which launched in the 1990s and was one of the first online map providers, had argued that Google failed to fulfil requirements under British and European law to evaluate the effect of introducing its own mapping service in the UK market – Google carried out such evaluations only in the US market.

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As a result, and specifically due to the introduction in 2007 of the “Maps OneBox” displaying Google’s own maps at the top of search results, Streetmap’s business was “destroyed”, according to the company’s attorneys.

Streetmap director Kate Sutton said the ruling introduces a new standard for companies wishing to bring competition cases against a dominant firm – they must prove not only “probability” that the dominant company’s actions caused competitive harm, but that harm was “appreciable”.

But the data needed to prove “appreciable harm” is usually only known to the dominant company itself – in this case, figures showing OneBox’s effect on Google’s traffic were only obtained during the discovery process after the trial had begun.

The ruling, which Mr Justice Roth acknowledged introduces a new legal standard into British law, makes it more difficult than ever for small companies to avail themselves of the protection provided by competition law, Streetmap said.

“The decision makes it effectively impossible for a small business to bring a competition law complaint until it is too late, because the information required will simply not be known to them,” Sutton said. “By raising the standard of proof from probability to ‘appreciable effect’ a complainant needs to have information which will usually only be known to the dominant company.”

Legal obligations

Aside from the ‘probable harm’ argument, Streetmap had also alleged that Google failed to carry out obligations to evaluate the British market at the time of introducing its mapping services there, and only provided evidence of compliance with the law retroactively, at the time of the trial.

“Google has got away with non-compliance with its legal obligations,” Sutton said. “We think that it is wrong for any company with the duty of a dominant company to take such an approach to compliance with the law.” Streetmap said it plans to appeal the ruling on these grounds.

“Streetmap’s business was destroyed,” said Tim Cowen, partner at law firm Preiskel & Co LLP, which acted for Streetmap. “This decision raises a question what big companies need to do to show compliance with EU and UK law.”

Cowen argued the ruling will make continental European countries more attractive than the UK for high-tech startups, since those countries do not face the additional barrier to bringing competition actions.

The High Court’s ruling favoured Google on the grounds that companies should be able to introduce features that make their products more attractive, and found that in this case the effect on competition was not significant.

“The court made clear that we’re focused on improving the quality of our search results,” Google stated. “This decision promotes innovation.”

The European Union’s antitrust regulator is conducting a separate probe into Google’s alleged abuse of its dominant position in search, affecting areas including shopping, travel and the Android mobile operating system. EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager specifically singled out Google Maps for attention in the inquiry.

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