Google has suffered another casualty in the battle between global tech giants and the EU.
The European Commission yesterday fined the company a record €4.34bn for anti-competitive behaviour which competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager deemed “illegal”.
The accusation is essentially that Google used the dominance of its Android operating system to promote its other products, such as Search or the Google web browser. Manufacturers were paid and pressured to pre-install Google software onto Android handsets, which, according to the EU, limited consumer choice and gave Google an unfair advantage over other developers.
Android users are, of course, free to download and use other browsers and search engines. However, only a tiny fraction choose to do so.
For Vestager, this is evidence not that consumers like what Google offers, but that they accept the status quo out of convenience. The suggestion is that they are manipulated by Google into using its products rather than shopping around. That is an implication that Google would likely question, pointing to the popularity of the software and services it provides as evidence.
But whether you think the tech titans need to be encouraged or tamed, the EUs heavy-handedness in scolding Google raises a whole other set of questions. Where are the European Googles, Facebooks, and Amazons? Why havent Berlin or Paris (or London, for that matter) generated a tech company so successful that regulators must act to prevent it taking over our lives? And would Vestagers rebukes have been any softer if they had?
The EU is not a bastion of free competition. From tariffs to labour directives and regulations supposedly aimed at “levelling the playing field”, the EU has a tendency to protect its own. With Donald Trump proclaiming to put America first at the expense of everyone else and slapping tariffs on foreign imports to the US, it is not inconceivable that Brussels is taking a harder line on one of the biggest US firms than it would for an EU-based rival.
The fine is a drop in the ocean for Google, but dont expect it to sit quietly and pay up. If the trade war escalates, it wont just be fought in steel mills and car factories, but could also play out on the screens of our phones.