Letter to Commissioner Almunia and the College of Commissioners
The following letter was sent to Commissioner Almunia, President Barroso, and the College of Commissioners on 11 March 2014:
Dear Commissioner Almunia,
CC: Commissioners of the College and the President of the Commission
As the company whose November 2009 Competition Complaint first brought Google’s search manipulation practices to the Commission’s attention, we were troubled by some of your statements recorded in the minutes of the 2075th meeting of the Commission (held on 12 February 2014 and published on the 25 February).
In response to questions about how Google’s proposed transition from natural, relevance-based search results to a pay-for-placement, auction-based system could hope to restore a level playing field or ensure access to innovative new entrants, the minutes record the following:
"As regards the importance of ensuring that SMEs could enter specialised online search markets, Mr ALMUNIA cited a number of technical parameters of the auction system which would ensure that this type of company would have access on non-disadvantageous terms and that the same arrangements, with or without fees, would be applied to both Google’s services and those of its competitors.” (Emphasis added)
If these official minutes provide an accurate account of the exchange, then we must respectfully point out that your answer to this crucial question was misleading on both counts.
First, as anyone who has studied Google’s proposals could readily confirm, Google’s services are not subject to “the same arrangements” as those of its competitors. As you must be aware, under Google’s proposals, only Google’s rivals would pay for placement in Google’s Universal Search box. Google would pay nothing; it would continue to insert links to its own services (together with monetised links derived from those services) in prime positions and entirely free of charge in all cases. In other words, Google would remain the sole beneficiary of the traffic it anti-competitively hijacks (diverts) from rivals, and would now also become the main beneficiary of any traffic it sends to them. If the Commission were to adopt these proposals, Google would gain sole possession of the free, natural search traffic that has hitherto fuelled the Internet revolution, and the Commission will have unwittingly granted Google a five year mandate to increase substantially the anti-competitive advantage Google already affords its own, often inferior, vertical search services.
Second, the proposed auction system does not contain any technical parameters that ensure “non-disadvantageous terms” for innovative SMEs; in fact, the minimum traffic threshold alone would almost entirely exclude new entrants.
As the overwhelming consensus from the two previous market tests made clear, the adoption of Google’s proposals would cause additional grave and irreparable harm to hundreds of European businesses and millions of European consumers.
Google’s proposals offer nothing to end the search manipulation practices it was tasked with remedying, and nothing to restore competition to the vertical search domains that these anti-competitive practices have already devastated, such as product price comparison. But, remarkably, Google’s proposed transition from free, relevance-based listings to pay-for-placement listings for all services except Google’s own introduces an entirely new form of abuse that will, if adopted, directly destroy competition in many verticals that have not yet been devastated, such as travel search, financial search, property search, and job search. As used to be the case with product price comparison, these are currently innovative and highly profitable industries, employing many thousands of people and contributing many millions in tax revenues across Europe. That most of these businesses are currently unaware of the damage that is about to be inflicted on them is not surprising; who could have anticipated that the Commission might allow a dominant company to settle a competition case by substantially increasing the anti-competitive abuse it had been instructed to remedy?
If Google’s proposals were adopted, consumers would not only be harmed by the ensuing lack of competition and consumer choice, they would also be directly and immediately harmed by the transition from relevance-based ranking to auction-based pay-for-placement. In what might be the mother of all unintended consequences, this transition would all but eradicate the considerable value that vertical search services provide to consumers; services that direct users to merchants with the best prices or products cannot compete in an auction against rivals that direct users to merchants that pay them the most. Not surprisingly, studies have already shown that the recent transition of Google’s own product price comparison service from relevance-based-placement to pay-for-placement has led directly to European consumers paying significantly higher prices for products purchased through this service.
It is difficult to imagine a Competition case where the stakes for consumers, businesses, and innovation could be any higher. As the gateway to the Internet, Google plays a decisive role in determining what the vast majority of us read, use, and purchase online. The importance of ending Google’s ability to manipulate this unprecedented power to its own anti-competitive ends cannot be overstated. It is no exaggeration to say that the hopes of a digital-led economic recovery may depend on the outcome of this case.
We are struggling to understand why you seem so determined to ignore the overwhelming empirical evidence and consensus of opinion from complainants, market participants, and consumer organisations. We urge you to reject Google’s proposals and pursue a Prohibition Decision that will end, rather than escalate, the abusive practices the Commission has identified.
 For details, see our Response to the Commission’s RFI regarding Google’s second set of proposals: http://www.foundem.co.uk/Foundem_Comments_Google_Revised_Proposals.pdf.