Breaking Up Google Is Hard to Do, EU Says After Vote

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European Union Antitrust Chief Margrethe Vestager
Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s antitrust chief who took office on Nov. 1, earlier this month said she would decide where the probe goes after she’s spoken to companies affected by Google’s behavior. Photographer: Jock Fistick/Bloomberg

Break up Google Inc.? It’s unlikely to happen, no matter what 384 European Union lawmakers say, according to ministers and officials.

Members of the EU parliament in Strasbourg, France voted 384-174 for the European Commission -- which is investigating Google for possible antitrust violations -- to consider “unbundling search engines from other commercial services.” The motion, which isn’t binding, didn’t mention Google by name.

Guenther Oettinger, the EU’s digital economy commissioner, said he didn’t think breaking-up Google “is what we can expect” after the vote to bolster search-engine competition.

Google, which has a market share of more than 90 percent for Internet search in some European countries, faces an assault on its business from across the bloc. It was criticized by privacy regulators this week, targeted by German politicians who urged the EU to push on with the antitrust probe and faces a possible levy on Internet copyright, adding to a Spanish law that lets publishers charge for web content.

The vote “doesn’t have any legal value” Axelle Lemaire, France’s secretary of state for digital affairs, told reporters in Brussels. It “simply expresses the wish of the newly elected European parliamentarians and does this in a strong manner.”

Al Verney, a spokesman for Google in Brussels, declined to comment on the vote.

Members of the European assembly cheered the result, which adds urgency to a antitrust probe that is two days short of its fourth birthday. A planned settlement to settle the case was delayed by negative feedback from rivals. Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s antitrust chief who took office on Nov. 1, said earlier this month she would decide where the probe goes after she has spoken to companies affected by Google’s behavior.

Preferential Treatment

“European enterprises are losing revenues and people are getting fired,” Ramon Tremosa, a member of the EU parliament from Spain’s Catalonia region, said in a statement. “European consumers are not having the most pertinent choice, because of Google’s preferential treatment to its own services.”

The commission will respond to the parliament’s resolution, said Ricardo Cardoso, its competition spokesman. Vestager needs “some time to form her view and decide on next steps” in the Google case.

He said “it is very important that the application of competition law in individual cases remains independent from politics and that antitrust procedures are not put into question.” Regulators must “respect the rights of all the parties involved” and “remain impartial and fair.”

Pro-Business

The parliament’s pro-business liberal group, which said it voted against splitting the company, said the assembly “should not be engaging in anti-Google resolutions inspired by a heavy lobby of Google competitors,” according to a statement.

The parliament’s plans have angered the U.S. government and a U.S.-based industry group, which criticized attempts to influence the EU’s four-year long antitrust investigation. The Computer and Communications Industry Association said the vote for “an extreme and unworkable solution” was “clearly designed to increase the pressure on Commissioner Vestager.”

Yesterday’s vote is another example of the parliament flexing its muscles to rein in business. The assembly managed to shoehorn curbs on banker bonuses into EU legislation on bank capital rules -- prompting outrage from U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who only abandoned his legal fight against the legislation this month.

Attacking Google may be more difficult for the parliament than the bonus rules, according to lawyers. That’s because the assembly, which meets in Brussels as well as Strasbourg, has fewer powers in the competition field.

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