EU Has ‘Effective’ Powers to Take on Google: Oettinger

Google Inc.’s clash with the European Union will soon reach its next phase and antitrust regulators have “effective” powers to take on the search-engine giant should they escalate their probe, the bloc’s digital commissioner said.

“We have the rules in place and fines are effective,” Guenther Oettinger told reporters in Hanover, Germany, on Tuesday. “I am convinced” that Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager “has a very appropriate position based on current developments,” he said.

Google and its critics are bracing for the EU to say this week how it will a pursue a four-year antitrust investigation into allegations that the search engine favors its own services over rivals, three people familiar with the matter said on Monday. Google’s last effort to settle the case and avoid objections that would lead to fines foundered last year on negative feedback from rivals.

While he didn’t confirm reports that a decision on the next steps will be made tomorrow, he said a move “will come in the next few days” and this may “possibly” mean a statement of objections, or SO.

This would set out how regulators think Google is breaking the law before a possible ruling on fines or an order for the company to change its ways.

Vestager has been facing calls from companies that oppose Google to take action since she took over the EU’s antitrust arm in November. She’s said she wanted to meet the company and its rivals before making any decisions.

Al Verney, a spokesman for Google in Brussels, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment on the status of the EU case.

Decade-Long

The EU wields the right to force companies to change their behavior and also to levy fines as much as 10 percent of annual revenue. It previously fined Intel Corp. 1.06 billion euros ($1.1 billion) and ordered that it abandon price rebates to computer manufacturers that used only its chips. Microsoft Corp. was fined more than 2.24 billion euros in its decade-long antitrust battle with the EU.

The EU has never demanded the maximum, however, and such a fine would be easily absorbed by Google’s $64.4 billion in cash, equivalents and short-term investments.

Imposing changes to the Mountain View, California-based company’s business model, such as how search results are generated or displayed, may potentially be more onerous. That would not only impinge on Google’s autonomy in how it runs its core business but could also slash revenue.

Oettinger, Germany’s member of the team of EU commissioners, has been a critic of Google’s dominance of the search-engine industry in Europe.

Part of his role as digital commissioner is to help boost the competitiveness of the bloc’s own technology industry.

Earlier today he warned that the EU’s online businesses “are today dependent on a few non-EU players worldwide.” He said “this must not be the case again in the future.”

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