Google could be fined £4.4bn as Brussels signals legal challenge in offing

Google could face a fine of up to $6.6bn (£4.4bn) after the European Commission began to update its evidence against the search engine – signalling that Brussels has decided to launch a full-blown legal challenge into its dominance.

The newly installed competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, whose political career inspired the blockbuster television series Borgen in her native Denmark, has begun updating evidence against Google and weighing whether to ramp up Europe’s five-year probe into Google’s search practices by releasing a new statement of objections.

More than 30 companies from Europe and the United States, including travel websites Expedia and Trip Advisor, price-comparison sites Nextag and Foundem, and the software group Microsoft, have complained that Google is harming their businesses.

The suggestion from Brussels is that Vestager has decided to take their cases forward, which could result in Google being fined up to 10% of its worldwide revenues, which were $66bn in 2014. The commission has in recent days contacted most of the complainants asking for permission to share non-confidential versions of their evidence, representatives of the firms said.

David Wood, legal counsel for Initiative for a Competitive Online Marketplace (ICOMP), which campaigns for Microsoft and other complainants, said: “We can confirm we were contacted by the commission and asked to provide non-confidential versions of documents we had previously submitted. The purpose seems to be quite clearly to prepare access to files in the event that the commission adopts a statement of objections, which seems increasingly likely.”

Brussels began formally investigating Google for abuse of dominant market position in November 2010 and Vestager’s predecessor, Joaquín Almunia, published a first statement of objections against it in May 2012.

This accused the Californian software group, which serves 90% of searches in Europe, of potentially favouring its own specialist services – such as restaurant or travel listings – over those of rivals. Almunia also found Google’s specialist services contained original content lifted from rival sites.

A source at one of the complainants said: “I believe every company has received a request for clarification, if the data they send in can be used. The commission needs the data to prepare the statement of objections.”

Almunia favoured a negotiated settlement over embroiling the commission in an expensive and lengthy legal battle with Google. But he failed to secure a deal. Under pressure from ministers in France and Germany, who were acting to protect home-grown media and technology companies, Almunia eventually rejected three successive offers from Google to change its business practices.

This time, a new charge sheet against Google would be likely to lead to legal action. Asked about the case earlier this month, Vestager told the Financial Times: “It’s very important not to make a habit out of settlements. They are much more quick and much more smooth and everyone can move on, but still you need occasion to develop [case law] and only our judges and going to court can do that.”

Google can demand access to the case file once Brussels has made its formal statement of objections. A version of the data submitted by complainants to the commission, edited to remove commercially confidential information, would be made available to Google as part of the case file. This is also likely to include notes taken of meetings with the complainants.

The material would be handed over in electronic format – most probably on CD-Rom discs – and a redacted version may be available later to the complainants.

Google declined to comment, but the company has said it has not behaved anti-competitively. A spokeswoman for Vestager said: “The Google investigation is ongoing. We have no further comments and we do not comment on speculations.”

Over the course of investigations and legal battles that ran from 1993 to 2013, the commission imposed more than €2bn in fines on Microsoft.