Google's informal corporate motto may be "don't be evil," but not everyone appears convinced that the Internet giant always acts benevolently -- for example its competitors in the online search business, who accuse it of abusing its power to crowd them out.
Now the Internet giant's business practices are going to come under close scrutiny by the European Union's competition authorities. The European Commission in Brussels announced on Tuesday that it had launched an antitrust investigation into Google. It wants to check if the firm has abused its dominant position in relation to online searches.
Rival search engines accuse Google of deliberately placing their websites too low down in the list of its unpaid search results. (Google features both paid and unpaid search results.) If the EU's competition authorities find evidence to support the claims, Google could face a hefty fine of up to 10 percent of its annual revenue. Based on 2009 figures, that could total a massive $2.4 billion (1.8 billion).
The Internet company said in a statement that it would cooperate with the European Commission. "Since we started Google, we have worked hard to do the right thing by our users and our industry. But there's always going to be room for improvement, and so we'll be working with the Commission to address any concerns."
Competitors Lodged Complaints
Three of Google's competitors -- the French legal search engine Ejustice.fr, the British price-comparison site Foundem and the shopping site Ciao, which is owned by Microsoft -- lodged complaints against Google's business practices with the European Commission in February. Shortly afterwards, the Commission launched a preliminary investigation to ascertain whether the allegations were worth following up.
Foundem accuses Google of placing its own services in a prominent place in its search results and thereby depriving its competitors of space. It also accuses Google of having charged its competitors inflated prices for text advertisements, which are shown next to search results.
The European Commission stressed there was no evidence of wrongdoing yet. "This initiation of proceedings does not imply that the Commission has proof of any infringements," the body said in a statement. "It only signifies that the Commission will conduct an in-depth investigation of the case as a matter of priority."
A similar investigation against Google is taking place in the US, where regulators in Texas launched an anti-trust investigation into Google's search and advertising practices in September.
The European Commission is known for taking a tough stance against information technology companies who abuse their power. The chip manufacturer Intel had to pay the EU a record fine of over 1 billion in 2009. The Commission has also fined software giant Microsoft hundreds of millions of euros and forced it to offer competing browsers to its Internet Explorer in its Windows operating system.
dgs - with wire reports
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