Tuesday 12 November 2019

Threat of breaking up Google is still open, says EU boss

Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: Reuters
Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: Reuters

James Crisp

The European Union harbours "grave suspicions" about the dominance of Google and has not ruled out breaking it up, the bloc's competition commissioner has warned.

Margrethe Vestager told 'The Daily Telegraph' that the threat to split the internet giant up into smaller companies must be kept open.

In June last year, the Danish commissioner hit Google with a record £2.1bn (€2.4bn) fine - which the firm is appealing against - for giving its own comparison shopping service an illegal advantage in search results.

Google now faces two other separate cases. Ms Vestager admitted her officials had "grave suspicions" about the firm, which has a 91.5pc share of the search-engine market in Europe.

"I think it important to keep that question open and on the agenda," she said when asked if the only solution to its dominance was to break up the company. "We are not there yet but it is important to keep an awakened eye." She warned that the search engine could become so big as to be indispensable for businesses and the economy.

The commissioner's warning comes at a time of unprecedented scrutiny of the behaviour of American tech giants such as Google and Facebook.

Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, was forced last week to apologise for a data breach affecting 50 million users. Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm, is alleged to have used the data while working for the Trump campaign. Last week, EU heads of state and governments agreed a joint statement calling for "social networks" to guarantee "full protection of citizens' privacy and personal data".

The scandal has encouraged those who claim the companies are as dominant as Standard Oil and AT&T were. Both companies were broken up after falling foul of antitrust legislation.

Ms Vestager, who was recently labelled "the Eurocrat who makes corporate America tremble", has won plaudits in Brussels for her willingness to take the fight to companies such as Google, Apple and Amazon.

"There is no ban on success in Europe," she said. "You get to be dominant and you get a special responsibility that you don't destroy the already weakened competition.

"We have proven their dominance in search and we have found they have misused this dominance to promote themselves and diminish competitors."

As head of the European Commission's antitrust department, Ms Vestager has the power to levy billion-euro fines on the world's biggest companies.

Since taking the job in 2014, she has ordered Ireland to claw back £11bn (€12.5bn) from Apple and Luxembourg £218m (€249m) from Amazon in back taxes after finding they were given illegal tax benefits.

Google has presented a plan of action to remedy the anti-competitive behaviour, which antitrust officials are still scrutinising, but last month a group of Google's opponents said its actions were "essentially meaningless" without breaking the internet giant up.

On the other cases, she said that "what we do say, will have to stand up in court", with no room for conspiracy theories.

Ms Vestager rejected any suggestion that she was targeting tech companies, adding: "I think the motives for illegal behaviour are the same for any kind of company. Money, fear, power - these motives have been the same across centuries."

Irish Independent

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