Europe Versus Google as EU Parliament Votes on Break-Up

Christopher Patey
Eric Schmidt

The European Parliament is expected to vote Thursday on measures aimed at curbing Google's online dominance

Can one of the world's Internet behemoths be taken down by a bunch of Brussels bureaucrats?

On Thursday, the members of the European Parliament in Brussels are scheduled to vote on a motion that, among other things, includes a recommendation to break up Google in Europe.

The motion is the latest volley between the Internet search engine and European regulators who are worried Google has become too powerful and may be violating EU law.

Read More Europe's Anti-Trust Watchdog Demands More Concessions from Google

By itself, the vote Thursday won't mean much. The motion is nonbinding. But a vote in favor of breaking up Google would put pressure on the EU's executive arm, the European Commission, which has the real power in Europe, to take action. This could include taking Google to court to force it to change its business practices or imposing a hefty fine of up to 10 percent of the company's global revenue.

The European Commission has had Google in its sights since 2010, when it began an investigation into how the company works and whether its dominant position — Google accounts for 90 percent of the online search market in Europe — has resulted in illegal, anticompetitive practices.

Google has made three settlement proposals aimed at ending the case, but all were rejected by the Commission, the latest in September. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp and others have criticized the firm's market power.

A Google representative on Tuesday declined to comment on Thursday's parliamentary vote.

European politicians have raised several concerns about Google, including the company's alleged tax avoidance, its supposed role in facilitating online piracy and its data collection practices. The latter led to Europe's "right to be forgotten" law, which gave European citizens the right to demand Google remove certain search results about them.

Read More Europe to Google: Rewrite Privacy Policy or Face Sanctions

The European Parliament and the Commission, however, are now dealing specifically with the question of whether Google has acted like an illegal monopoly. The allegations include claims that Google has deliberately manipulated its search results to rank sites it sees as a competitive threat lower in its search results and that its actions on the online advertising market effectively keep out potential competitors. Because the case has not yet gone to court, Google's detractors have not had to provide any evidence to back up their accusations.

Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, has publicly denied, most recently in an op-ed piece for the Financial Times, that the company has done anything wrong or illegal.

If the European Parliament backs the break-up motion on Thursday, it would put pressure on European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager to take a hard line with Google and demand tougher concessions from the company. Failing that, the Commission could take Google to court to try and prove anti-competitive practices.

Theoretically, if the Commission wins its court case, it could call for the breakup of Google in Europe. Most analysts, however, see this scenario as highly unlikely.

But executives at Google, and at Internet companies worldwide, will still be watching Thursday's vote in Brussels closely — if only to judge the mood in Europe and see which way the political wind is blowing.

Twitter: @sroxborough

comments powered by Disqus