Act Now Before Google Kills Ss, 135-strong Coalition of Start-ups Cautions EU Antitrust Chief

A coalition of 135 startups and tech companies with services in verticals consisting of travel, lodging, and jobs have written to the European Commission to advise antitrust action versus Google — warning that swift enforcement is required or some of their organizations may not make it through.

They likewise argue the Commission requires to act now or it risks weakening its in-train reform of digital policies — which is because of being set out in draft form early next month.

The letter has been inked by veteran internet gamers such as Booking.com, Expedia, Kayak, OpenTable, Tripadvisor, and Yelp, co-signing in addition to a raft of (mainly) smaller sized European startups throughout all 3 verticals.

A further 30 co-signatories are business associations and companies in associated and other locations such as media/publishing– producing an overall of 165 entities requiring Google to face speedy antitrust banhammers.

A European Commission spokesperson validated to TechCrunch it’s received the Google critics’ letter– stating it will reply “in due course”.

‘Not completing on the merits’

While there have been grievances on this front in the past– the Commission has said it’s been hearing rumblings of discontent in the travel section for several years at this point– a growing coalition of businesses (including some based in the U.S.) are banding together to pressure the EU antitrust chief to clip Google’s wings– with, for example, jobs-related organizations signing up with the travel start-ups whose grievances we reported on recently.

Reuters, which obtained the letter earlier, reports that the union is the largest ever to grumble in a show to the EU’s competition department.

In the letter, which TechCrunch has reviewed, the group argues that Google is breaching a 2017 EU competitors enforcement decision over Google Shopping that disallowed the tech giant from self-preferencing and unfairly benching rivals.

The group argues Google is unfairly leveraging its dominant position in web search to get market share in the verticals where they run– pointing to a feature Google displays at the top of search engine result (called “OneBoxes”) where it points internet users to its services, all at once steering them away from rival services.

The Commission is thinking about limiting such self-preferencing in upcoming legislative propositions that it wants to apply to dominant “gatekeeper” internet platforms– which Google would probably be categorized as.

For, now, though no such ex-ante policy exists– and the union argues the Commission requires to pull its finger out and flex its existing antitrust powers to stop Google’s market abuse before it’s too late for their services.

“Google’s technical combination of its specialized search services into its near-monopoly basic search service continues to constitute a clear abuse of supremacy,” they argue in the letter to Vestager.

“Like no service before, Google has generated data and content relevant for competitors on such markets at the cost of others –– us,” they go on. “Google did not attain its position on any such market by completing the benefits. Rather, there is no international consensus that Google gained unjustified advantages through preferentially treating its own services within its basic search engine result pages by displaying numerous types of organized specialized search outcomes.”

A comparable grievance about Google unfairly pushing its services at the expense of competitors’ can be found in the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust claim versus it, submitted just last month — which is doubtless giving succor to Google plaintiffs to redouble their efforts in Europe.

Back in 2017, the Commission found Google to be a dominant company in an internet search. Under EU law this implies it has an obligation not to use the exact same types of infringing behavior determined in the Google Shopping case in any other business vertical, regardless of its market share.

Antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager has gained credibility for taking on Big Tech throughout her first (and now 2nd term) stint as the Commission’s competition chief– now integrated with an EVP function forming digital method for the bloc.

But while, on her watch, Google has dealt with enforcement over its Shopping search (2017 ), Android mobile OS (2018) and AdSense search ad brokering service (2019 ), antitrust complainants say the regulatory action has not done anything to dislodge the tech giant’s supremacy and bring back competitors to those particular markets or somewhere else.

“The Commission’s Google Search (Shopping) choice of 27 June 2017 (was expected to) set a precedent that Google is not permitted to promote its own services within the search engine result pages of its dominant basic search service. Nevertheless, since today, the decision did not lead to Google altering anything meaningful,” the coalition argues in the letter dated November 12, 2020.

The Commission completes its Shopping choice has led to a substantial increase in the rate of display of deals from rivals to Google in its Shopping units (up 73.5%), also pointing to a rate of near-parity between Google offers on Shopping units getting clicks and rivals’ offers being clicked. Nevertheless, if Google is compensating for losing on (some) market share in Shopping searches by calling up its market share in other verticals (such as travel and jobs) that’s hardly going to sum to a balanced and efficient antitrust remedy.

It’s also intriguing to note that the signatures on the most current letter consist of the Foundem CEO: aka the original shopping comparison engine complainant in the Google Shopping case.

In more remarks today, the Commission spokesperson informed us: ” We continue to thoroughly monitor the market with a view to assessing the efficiency of the solutions,” including: ” Shopping is simply among the specialized search services that Google provides. The choice we took in June 2017 provides us a structure to look likewise at other specialised search services, such as Google jobs and regional search. Our preliminary investigation on this is continuous.”

On the Commission’s forthcoming Digital Provider Act and Digital Markets Act package, the union suggests an absence of action to control violent behavior by Google now risks making it difficult for those future regulations to remedy such practices.

“If in the pending competition investigations, the Commission accepts Google’s present conduct as ‘equal treatment’, this produces the risk of pre-defining and hence cheapening the significance of any future legislative restriction on self-preferencing,” they caution, adding that: “Competition and innovation will continue to be stifled, merely because the necessary measures to counter the additional anti-competitive expansion are not taken right now.”

In addition, they argue that a legislative process is merely too slow to be utilized as an antitrust corrective step– leaving their organizations at risk of not enduring Google in the meanwhile.

“While a targeted guideline of digital gatekeepers might help in the long run, the Commission ought to first use its existing tools to enforce the Shopping precedent and guarantee equivalent treatment within Google’s basic search engine result pages,” they urge, adding that they usually welcome the Commission strategy to regulate “dominant basic online search engine” however emphasize speed is of the essence.

“We face the imminent danger of being disintermediated by Google. A number of us may not have the strength and resources to wait until such regulation really takes effect,” they include. ” Action is needed now. If Google were allowed to continue the anti-competitive favouring of its specialized search services till any meaningful guideline works, our services will continue to do not have traffic, data, and the chance to innovate on the benefits. Until then, our services continue to be caught in a vicious cycle –– offering advantages to Google’s completing services while rendering our services obsolete in the long run.”

Requested its response to the group’s criticism of its company practices, a Google representative sent this declaration: “People anticipate Google to give them the most appropriate, high-quality search results page that they can trust. They do not anticipate us to choose specific companies or industrial rivals over others, or to stop introducing practical services which develop more choice and competitors for Europeans.”