EU’s search to break up Google: What you need to know

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Despite Microsoft and Yahoo’s best efforts, Google remains synonymous with search in many parts of the world. Nowhere is that more true than in Europe. Google controls about 90 percent of online search in that market and politicians are clamouring for new controls to over its search results and the company’s other services.

This week the European Parliament passed a resolution in favour of “unbundling search engines from other commercial services”. Although Google is not directly identified, the EU has been targeting the search giant under antitrust allegations for years.

How could this impact Google’s dominance in search? Here are three things you need to know:

1. Europe’s politicians want to boost its digital economy

The call to unbundle Google search was emphasized as part of a resolution to “break down barriers to the growth” of what it calls its digital single market, which it claims could generate an additional €260 billion a year for the EU economy, as well as boosting its competitiveness. The motion was approved by 384 votes to 174, with 56 abstentions.

Europe has seen its power wane among the technology corporate elite, and politicians make hay about how U.S. giants like Apple find loopholes to avoid paying as much tax as local European companies.

European politicians have search engines (read: Google) in its sights for what they see as the critical role they play in the “competitive conditions” of its digital single market. The resolution stressed the importance of non-discriminatory online search, including “unbiased and transparent” indexation, evaluation, presentation and ranking by search engines.

The kicker was that the resolution calls on the European Commission “to consider proposals with the aim of unbundling search engines from other commercial services.”

2. The ball is now in the Commission’s court, where it counts

The Parliament’s motion is non-binding, and therefore somewhat toothless political grandstanding. But the intention is to place more pressure on the European Commission’s bureaucrats — specifically Margrethe Vestager, the Commission’s new antitrust chief — to stand strong in its ongoing antitrust investigations and negotiations .

The European Commission has been investigating Google since 2010 over allegations that it was biased in linking search results to its own services, and negotiated important concessions in February. Most importantly, Google agreed to display its own services in search results exactly the same way as it does competing services. This was in addition to other concessions it made previously, including:

  • Letting content providers opt-out from Google’s specialised services, without penalty

  • Removing exclusivity requirements with publishers regarding the provision of search advertisements

  • Removing restrictions on how search advertising campaigns run on competing search advertising platforms

Nothing about these concessions has been finalized yet, as the bureaucratic process continues to grind out.

3. Breaking up is hard to do

As a technology company, Google is remarkably patient and principled, which are two traits that should work in its favour.  Its ability to see the big picture better than most helps it stay cool while politicians try to score points. Although the political climate in the EU is different than the U.S., even Microsoft’s ugly antitrust battles in the late 1990s and early 2000s essentially came to naught.

EU Digital Economy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger acknowledged,  “I don’t think, at the end of the day, that the breaking up as such is what we can expect.”

On SearchEngineLand, Greg Sterling wrote:

…It’s possible that in Europe Google will be compelled to unbundle its privacy policy and won’t be able to combine data-sets for personalization and ad-targeting purposes. We will also probably see some effort to curb Google’s control over Android as well.

Technology industry often evolves too fast for the policy makers, and something to watch is how the EU’s mission to ensure unbiased and transparent search results extends into the realms of mobile and social search.

Photo: Rock Cohen

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Andrew Wahl

Andrew Wahl

Senior Content Strategist at Dash Digital Group
Toronto-area writer, editor and digital marketer who creates content with Dash Digital Group. Former senior writer and columnist with Canadian Business magazine.