Google has joined an exclusive club that includes tech-industry elder statesmen Microsoft and Intel: target of an European Union antitrust investigation. The EU's executive branch, the European Commission, has begun looking at whether Google, in producing search results, privileged its own services over those of competitors.
The investigation was a long time in coming, with Microsoft attempting to prod the EU into action as long ago as last May. At the time, Microsoft complained that the bundling of Google search with the Chrome browser was anticompetitive, a different charge from the one under investigation by the European Commission.
"The commission will investigate whether Google has abused a dominant market position in online search by allegedly lowering the ranking of unpaid search results of competing services which are specialized in providing users with specific online content such as price comparisons (so-called vertical search services) and by according preferential placement to the results of its own vertical search services in order to shut out competing services," said the European Commission. "The commission will also look into allegations that Google lowered the 'Quality Score' for sponsored links of competing vertical search services. The Quality Score is one of the factors that determine the price paid to Google by advertisers."
If this case goes to trial, Google could face serious headaches on two fronts. First, a trial might lead to accidental revelations about Google's search algorithm, the secret sauce behind the company's most profitable arm. The fairness of the algorithm has been criticized in the past, and revelations at the trial could add weight to those criticisms.
Second, if Google loses the case, it will almost certainly face a hefty fine. The EU is known for sternly punishing antitrust violations, handing out over $2 billion in total fines to Microsoft since 2000 and fining Intel $1.4 billion in 2009 alone.
At this point, it is impossible to tell whether this case will move past the investigative stage, or to accurately predict how a trial would affect the company at large. However, considering the size and prestige of the EU's previous antitrust targets, this case does confirm Google's status as a mover and shaker in the tech world.