The European Commission, Google, and the Limits of Antitrust

Alden Abbott —  21 April 2015

The precise details underlying the European Commission’s (EC) April 15 Statement of Objections (SO), the EC’s equivalent of an antitrust complaint, against Google, centered on the company’s promotion of its comparison shopping service (CSS), “Google Shopping,” have not yet been made public.  Nevertheless, the EC’s fact sheet describing the theory of the case is most discouraging to anyone who believes in economically sound, consumer welfare-oriented antitrust enforcement.   Put simply, the SO alleges that Google is “abusing its dominant position” in online search services throughout Europe by systematically positioning and prominently displaying its CSS in its general search result pages, “irrespective of its merits,” causing the Google CSS to achieve higher rates of growth than CSSs promoted by rivals.  According to the EC, this behavior “has a negative impact on consumers and innovation”.  Why so?  Because this “means that users do not necessarily see the most relevant shopping results in response to their queries, and that incentives to innovate from rivals are lowered as they know that however good their product, they will not benefit from the same prominence as Google’s product.”  (Emphasis added.)  The EC’s proposed solution?  “Google should treat its own comparison shopping services and those of rivals in the same way.”

The EC’s latest action may represent only “the tip of a Google EC antitrust iceberg,” since the EC has stated that it is continuing to investigate other aspects of Google’s behavior, including Google agreements with respect to the Android operating system, plus “the favourable treatment by Google in its general search results of other specialised search services, and concerns with regard to copying of rivals’ web content (known as ‘scraping’), advertising exclusivity and undue restrictions on advertisers.”  For today, I focus on the tip, leaving consideration of the bulk of the iceberg to future commentaries, as warranted.  (Truth on the Market has addressed Google-related antitrust issues previously — see, for example, here, here, and here.)

The EC’s April 15 Google SO is troublesome in multiple ways.

First, the claim that Google does not “necessarily” array the most relevant search results in a manner desired by consumers appears to be in tension with the findings of an exhaustive U.S. antitrust investigation of the company.  As U.S. Federal Trade Commissioner Josh Wright pointed out in a recent speech, the FTC’s 2013 “closing statement [in its Google investigation] indicates that Google’s so-called search bias did not, in fact, harm consumers; to the contrary, the evidence suggested that ‘Google likely benefited consumers by prominently displaying its vertical content on its search results page.’  The Commission reached this conclusion based upon, among other things, analyses of actual consumer behavior – so-called ‘click through’ data – which showed how consumers reacted to Google’s promotion of its vertical properties.”

Second, even assuming that Google’s search engine practices have weakened competing CSSs, that would not justify EC enforcement action against Google.  As Commissioner Wright also explained, the FTC “accepted arguments made by competing websites that Google’s practices injured them and strengthened Google’s market position, but correctly found that these were not relevant considerations in a proper antitrust analysis focused upon consumer welfare rather than harm to competitors.”  The EC should keep this in mind, given that, as former EC Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia emphasized, “[c]onsumer welfare is not just a catchy phrase.  It is the cornerstone, the guiding principle of EU competition policy.”

Third, and perhaps most fundamentally, although EC disclaims an interest in “interfere[ing] with” Google’s search engine algorithm, dictating an “equal treatment of competitors” result implicitly would require intrusive micromanagement of Google’s search engine – a search engine which is at the heart of the company’s success and has bestowed enormous welfare benefits on consumers and producers alike.  There is no reason to believe that EC policing of EC CSS listings to promote an “equal protection of competitors” mandate would result in a search experience that better serves consumers than the current Google policy.  Consistent with this point, in its 2013 Google closing statement, the FTC observed that it lacked the ability to “second-guess” product improvements that plausibly benefit consumers, and it stressed that “condemning legitimate product improvements risks harming consumers.”

Fourth, competing CSSs have every incentive to inform consumers if they believe that Google search results are somehow “inferior” to their offerings.  They are free to advertise and publicize the merits of their services, and third party intermediaries that rate browsers may be expected to report if Google Shopping consistently offers suboptimal consumer services.  In short, “the word will get out.”  Even in the absence of perfect information, consumers can readily at low cost browse alternative CSSs to determine whether they prefer their services to Google’s – “help is only a click away.”

Fifth, the most likely outcome of an EC “victory” in this case would be a reduced incentive for Google to invest in improving its search engine, knowing that its ability to monetize search engine improvements could be compromised by future EC decisions to prevent an improved search engine from harming rivals.  What’s worse, other developers of service platforms and other innovative business improvements would similarly “get the message” that it would not be worth their while to innovate to the point of dominance, because their returns to such innovation would be constrained.  In sum, companies in a wide variety of sectors would have less of an incentive to innovate, and this in turn would lead to reduced welfare gains and benefits to consumers.  This would yield (as the EC’s fact sheet put it) “a negative impact on consumers and innovation”, because companies across industries operating in Europe would know that if their product were too good, they would attract the EC’s attention and be put in their place.  In other words, a successful EC intervention here could spawn the very welfare losses (magnified across sectors) that the Commission cited as justification for reining in Google in the first place!

Finally, it should come as no surprise that a coalition of purveyors of competing search engines and online shopping sites lobbied hard for EC antitrust action against Google.  When government intervenes heavily and often in markets to “correct” perceived “abuses,” private actors have a strong incentive to expend resources on achieving government actions that disadvantage their rivals – resources that could otherwise have been used to compete more vigorously and effectively.  In short, the very existence of expansive regulatory schemes disincentivizes competition on the merits, and in that regard tends to undermine welfare.  Government officials should keep that firmly in mind when private actors urge them to act decisively to “cure” marketplace imperfections by limiting a rival’s freedom of action.

Let us hope that the EC takes these concerns to heart before taking further action against Google.

Alden Abbott

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I am a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. I write on antitrust, domestic and international regulatory policy, and law and economics. I am an Adjunct Faculty Member at George Mason Law School.

3 responses to The European Commission, Google, and the Limits of Antitrust

  1. 
    charlesarthur 23 April 2015 at 6:51 am

    “the FTC’s 2013 “closing statement [in its Google investigation] indicates that Google’s so-called search bias did not, in fact, harm consumers; to the contrary, the evidence suggested that ‘Google likely benefited consumers by prominently displaying its vertical content on its search results page.’ ”

    This is an accurate quotation. But note that the FTC statement when it concluded its investigation also said this: “regarding the specific allegations that the company biased its search results to hurt competition, the evidence collected to date did not justify legal action by the Commission,” said Beth Wilkinson, outside counsel to the Commission. “Undoubtedly, Google took aggressive actions to gain advantage over rival search providers. However, the FTC’s mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors. The evidence did not demonstrate that Google’s actions in this area stifled competition in violation of U.S. law.”

    So the FTC accepted that Google gained advantage, but concluded that that didn’t harm consumers. AIUI, the US test requires harm to consumers. But Europe’s test for antitrust doesn’t have a consumer test; it has a simple dominance/annexing/harming competition test. Clearly, what happened in the US and EU is the same behaviour. But the EC has a different test for when to act – as we are seeing.

    • 

      Thanks. Actually, EU Commissioners for Competition have emphasized that a consumer welfare standard is the lodestar of EC enforcement policy. My key point is that, consistent with those pronouncements, the EC hopefully will keep consumer welfare firmly in mind in deciding whether particular conduct constitutes an abuse of a dominant position. If DG Comp chooses not to do so, European consumers will be worse off.

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