Google lashed out at the European Union for doling out a “quasi criminal fine of very large proportions” for allegedly thwarting advertising rivals on websites.
At a hearing at the bloc’s general court on Monday, the search giant said the 2019 decision by the EU’s antitrust arm to issue the €1.5-billion (R25-billion) fine was riddled with errors and should be struck down.
The case is the last of a trilogy of EU court fights over cases that set the course for antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager’s bid to rein in Silicon Valley. It focuses on Google’s role as an ad broker for websites, targeting exclusivity agreements for online ads with its AdSense for Search product. In its decision, the EU accused the company of imposing a number of restrictive clauses in contracts with third-party websites which prevented Google’s rivals from placing their search adverts on these websites.
The European Commission analysis includes “errors of characterisation” that led it “to proceed on a false basis in its assessment of the clauses and they have resulted in material errors of analysis”, said Josh Holmes, one of the lawyers for Google appearing in court.
The trio of cases marked the centrepiece of Vestager’s bid to crack down on the growing power of big tech companies. She’s fined the Alphabet unit about US$9.5-billion (R152-billion) to date and is still probing the company’s suspected stranglehold over digital advertising.
“Google’s ultra-dominant position in general search” meant that it would always be well placed to operate on the European market for search advertising, Nicholas Khan, a lawyer for the commission, told the court.
“Google didn’t want to rely on the intrinsic merits of its service, but instead resorted to the impugned clauses” in the agreements with “the commercially most important publishers for periods that usually ran for several years, and sometimes ran for many years”, he said. The disputed clauses were “clearly capable of restricting competition, as Google was well aware”.
EU and UK antitrust watchdogs recently opened a new probe into possible collusion by Google and Meta Platforms over the way they operate online display advertising services.
Google in November lost the first challenge in its pending appeals in a case that focused on how the firm favoured its own shopping service over rivals, an issue that’s triggered complaints against other tech giants.
The EU court, the bloc’s second highest, on 14 September is set to rule on Google’s appeal of a record-breaking €4.3-billion antitrust fine over its Android operating system. — Stephanie Bodoni, (c) 2022 Bloomberg LP