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European Parliament slips Google unbundling into single digital market agenda

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European Parliament has approved a motion stressing among other things the need to unbundle search engines from the other commercial services offered by those companies. Though technically non-binding, largely symbolic and heavily criticised, the move seems largely aimed at pressuring the European Commission to investigate the possible breakup of Google. The move was brushed off by some as “political theatre.”

European Parliament passed a broad resolution (384 votes for to 174 against, with 56 abstentions) on Thursday aimed at encouraging the EU’s single digital market initiative through more legal guarantees on net neutrality and common standards on cloud computing.

But the resolution also calls for the unbundling of online search companies, which despite not naming Google specifically has largely been interpreted as being aimed at the US-based search giant.  The company has been under investigation by the European Commission for potential anti-competitive behaviour since 2010.

The European Parliament has released a statement on the vote: “The resolution underlines that “the online search market is of particular importance in ensuring competitive conditions within the digital single market” and welcomes the Commission’s pledges to investigate further the search engines’ practices.”

The resolution calls on the Commission “to prevent any abuse in the marketing of interlinked services by operators of search engines,” and stresses the importance of non-discriminatory online search.

“Given the role of internet search engines in “commercialising secondary exploitation of obtained information” and the need to enforce EU competition rules, MEPs also call on the Commission “to consider proposals with the aim of unbundling search engines from other commercial services” in the long run.”

Google declined to comment on the result of the vote.

The move has been heavily criticised by US lawmakers as a politically motivated way to influence existing investigations, and comes as the Commission redoubles efforts to investigate Google for potentially anti-competitive behaviour and abusing its dominance in online search.

Earlier this year Europe’s former competition commissioner Joaquín Almunia helped broker agreements with Google to ensure the search giant treats rival shopping and mapping services equally. A broader anti-competition investigation is still ongoing.

But it seems the latest resolution, devoid of any teeth, is intended to remove any ambiguity around what the EU Parliament views as Google’s continued abuse of its dominance, something it wants the new commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, who took the reins at the beginning of this month, to bear in mind.

German Green Party MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht, who did not support the final resolution passed Thursday, told BCN that while it is important for European Parliament to have clear visibility of the mechanisms and procedures by which the European Commission investigates potential anti-competitive behaviour in EU market, “political theatre” has seemingly overshadowed debate over most of issues considered core to the digital single market discussion.

“The digital single market in the European Union is about quite a lot of issues, which seems to step into the background of this one sentence with regard to unbundling search engines and other services,” he said.

“There is the impression given by some members of the two bigger political groups that [European Parliament] intends to politically break up Google or other companies only because they might be too powerful in competition to their own competitors in the market, when it comes to the big publishers or something like that. This might also be motivation of some politicians who now push this breakup rhetoric, but I don’t think this is necessarily the appropriate reaction, and we certainly didn’t see that reflected in the adopted text.”

Albrecht, who is also heavily involved in data privacy reform in Europe, said that there is nothing overtly political in the final text of the adopted resolution in so far as it relates to the investigation of Google or other companies like it. But he argued that the text was too weak on a series of other core single digital market issues – consumer rights, net neutrality, privacy and data protection – and that Parliament to some extent “stepped back and hid behind this debate on the Google breakup.”

“I think it’s important to get back to the really important procedures and the reform of the internet and telecommunications market where we have a connected market regulations coming up, the data protection reform, and copyright reform, but unfortunately some representatives of the bigger parties wanted to do some political theatre around this breakup issue,” he said. “Still, one could say that the political debate taking place is not really anywhere near the text of the resolution.”

Nevertheless, if the Microsoft anti-trust case in Europe is anything to go by we’re likely just four years in to what might become an epic anti-competition saga. The Google anti-competition investigation proceedings will likely continue to remain fairly separate from broader initiatives included in the single digital market reform initiative, but as Vestager takes the reins from Almunia, it will be interesting to see whether the European Commission does mandate further changes to how Google operates on the continent. Whether this will have any deep impact on single digital market regulations moving forward remains to be seen.


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