Microsoft Pushed E.U. Hard to Move on Google ; Software Giant Funded Studies and Groups to Advance Antitrust Case

By Hakim, Danny | International New York Times, April 17, 2015 | Go to article overview

Microsoft Pushed E.U. Hard to Move on Google ; Software Giant Funded Studies and Groups to Advance Antitrust Case


Hakim, Danny, International New York Times


Microsoft is relishing a second act in Brussels, playing the role of scold instead of victim.

Not long ago, Microsoft was the scourge of European antitrust regulators.

It was fined not once, not twice, not thrice but four times. Finally, after Microsoft paid more than $3 billion, Europe left it alone.

Now, Google is firmly in Europe's cross hairs: Antitrust regulators on Wednesday formally accused the company of abusing its dominance. And Microsoft is relishing a second act in Brussels, playing the role of scold instead of victim.

Microsoft has kept its coffers full for the fight, spending more on lobbying here than any European company. And Microsoft has founded or funded a cottage industry of splinter groups. The most prominent, the Initiative for a Competitive Online Marketplace, or Icomp, has waged a relentless public relations campaign promoting grievances against Google. Icomp hosts webinars, panel discussions and news conferences. It conducted a study that suggested changes made by Google to appease regulators were largely window dressing.

Microsoft has links, to varying degrees, with the three initial complainants that sparked the antitrust investigation into Google. And Microsoft's activity gained momentum as a new European government re-energized the investigation. Last month, Microsoft played an important role in a delegation of American companies that met with the United States ambassador here, essentially asking him to let Google fend for itself against European regulators.

The two companies are the Cain and Abel of American technology, locked in the kind of struggle that often takes place when a new giant threatens an older one. Microsoft was frustrated after American regulators at the Federal Trade Commission didn't act on a similar antitrust investigation against Google in 2013, calling it a "missed opportunity." It has taken the fight to the state level, along with a number of other opponents of Google.

The main battle is now in Europe, where the two companies are fighting what could be called an away game, thousands of miles from their American headquarters. Policy makers are alarmed that Google's European market share is roughly 90 percent in many countries, even greater than it is in America.

"Microsoft is doing its best to create problems for Google," said Manfred Weber, the chairman of the European People's Party, the center-right party that is the largest voting bloc in the European Parliament.

"It's interesting. Ten years ago Microsoft was a big and strong company," he added. "Now they are the underdog."

None of this is to suggest that Google doesn't face serious questions about its business practices. Margrethe Vestager, the European competition commissioner, said in a news conference on Wednesday that "in its general interest search results, Google artificially favors its own comparison shopping service" to the detriment of rivals. "This constitutes an abuse."

She said the commission was continuing to investigate whether Google improperly copied other companies' content and used exclusivity deals to prevent businesses from using rival advertising platforms.

She also formally opened an inquiry in a potent new battleground: how Google deals with competition in its Android operating system for mobile phones.

And Microsoft is hardly alone in this fight, with other American technology and Internet companies lining up against Google in Europe, including Yelp, which ranks restaurants and other businesses, and TripAdvisor, a travel site. Influential European powers have also weighed in, including German publishers, who have been aggrieved by Google's tactics and its use of their content.

"The reality in Brussels is that you're either in the Google camp or the opposite camp, and that goes for companies or advisers or trade associations," said Thomas Tindemans, the chief executive of the Brussels branch of Hill & Knowlton, the public relations firm. …

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