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Microsoft Files EC Antitrust Complaint Against Google

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Microsoft claims that Google is abusing its dominance in the online search market to block out rivals

Microsoft has filed a formal antitrust complaint with the European Commission about Google’s dominant position in the search market.

In a company blog post, Microsoft’s senior vice president and general counsel Brad Smith claimed that 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”.

He goes on to list six ways in which Google suppresses competition in the market. These include:

  • restricting search competitors’ access to YouTube (which Google owns)
  • blocking access to YouTube from Windows Phones
  • limiting access to online copies of out-of-copyright books
  • preventing advertisers from using their data in an interoperable way with other search engines
  • compelling websites to only use Google search boxes on their pages
  • discriminating against competitors by making it more expensive for them to advertise their own competing services

The European Commission has acknowledged Microsoft’s complaint and says it will seek further information from Google.

“The Commission takes note of the complaint and, as is the procedure, will inform Google and will ask for its views on it. No further information will be given,” a spokeswoman for competition affairs at the commission said in a statement.

Ongoing antitrust investigation

The European Commission is already investigating Google over antitrust issues, following previous complaints by rivals including Microsoft Ciao and UK price comparison site Foundem. The companies allege that Google’s search algorithms demote their sites in Google search results because they are Google competitors.

The investigation was expanded in December 2010, following further complaints from a conglomerate of 450 newspaper and magazine publishers, known as the B.D.Z.V. and V.D.Z., and Euro-Cities, an online mapping specialist.

Google chief executive Eric Schmidt (pictured) said in February that the company may be open to tweaking its search algorithm to head off the antitrust investigation, where it could end up paying billions of dollars in fines.

“I think it is in our interests and I would hope in their interests to do a quick analysis of concerns that have been raised by competitors. Hopefully, they are minor or they are not correct, and we’ll find out and make sure we are operating well within the law and the spirit of the law,” Schmidt told the Telegraph.

However, there has been some suggestion that the EC’s antitrust investigation of Google is biased, and that the questions it has been asking advertisers are leading.

“Many EU officials have made public comments that Google is too powerful and influential and should be restrained in one form or another or have its discretion limited in some way,” said Search Engine Land’s Greg Sterling in a January blog post. “A skeptic might call it a ‘fishing expedition’.”

Ironic move by Microsoft?

Other commentators have pointed out the irony of Microsoft filing an antitrust complaint against Google, after Microsoft itself was fined billions by the European Commission in 2004 for abusing its own dominance of the operating system market.

The company was found guilty of restricting interoperability between Windows PCs and non-Microsoft workgroup servers, and tethering its Windows Media Player to Windows – offences for which it was fined £436.99 million. Microsoft complied with the order to offer a version of Windows without Windows Media Player, but it failed to supply server information to rivals as required, leading the EC to issue a further fine of £790.13 million.

More recently, Microsoft sidestepped an antitrust fine for tying Internet Explorer to Windows, by allowing Europeans to choose their default web browser. Windows users are now greeted with an automatic “ballot screen” when they first log on, that offers a choice between 12 different browsers in random order.

“More so than most, we recognise the importance of ensuring that competition laws remain balanced and that technology innovation moves forward,” wrote Smith in his blog. “We readily appreciate that Google should continue to have the freedom to innovate. But it shouldn’t be permitted to pursue practices that restrict others from innovating and offering competitive alternatives.”