Google Inc.’s antitrust foes were asked to allow the search-engine giant to see secret evidence they gave to European Union regulators, two people familiar with the case said.
The EU request for complainants to declassify some of their documents may be a sign that officials are preparing to escalate their four-year-long antitrust investigation, according to the people who asked not to be identified because details of the probe aren’t public.
“If the commission is contacting the parties to declassify stuff, it is a smoke sign that a statement of objections may be underway,” said Nicolas Petit, a law professor at the University of Liege. “As soon as a statement is out” the company “will request access to the file to see what’s in the commission’s hand.”
The EU stepped up its probe into the world’s biggest search engine in December when it sought fresh information from people involved in Internet maps, travel and other services. EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said last week that she hasn’t yet decided how to take the investigation forward.
A statement of objections lays out the antitrust case against a company, giving it a chance to see evidence and respond before regulators decide whether to fine it up to 10 percent of yearly revenue. It doesn’t rule out a potential settlement that would allow a company to avoid fines by pledging to change its behavior.
Ricardo Cardoso, a spokesman for the commission in Brussels, declined to comment, as did Al Verney, a spokesman for Google.
The EU has been formally looking at the company since 2010 over allegations that it abused its market power by promoting its own services above others and deterring advertisers from using other search engines.
Google tried to allay EU concerns over the visibility of competing services by offering to display paid-for links to rivals next to its own in boxes it places near search results. Negative feedback from companies that complained, which include Microsoft Corp. and Expedia Inc., forced the EU to seek a better offer.