Google hearing loss may help company silence rivals in EU probe
Google Inc. has turned down the chance of a hearing with European Union antitrust watchdogs and rivals, denying its industry foes the chance to take another swipe at the search-engine giant.
Google hit back on Thursday in a written response to an EU antitrust complaint that accused the company of wielding its power for years to quell competition in the comparison-shopping market. But Google waived its right to demand a hearing to argue its case in Brussels.
"It's highly unusual for a company embroiled in an antitrust probe to take a miss on an oral hearing when it gets a chance to call one," said Thomas Vinje, a lawyer with Clifford Chance LLP who represents FairSearch Europe, whose members include Microsoft Corp., Expedia Inc. and Nokia Oyj. "But here, Google realizes it cannot win the argument in a debate it does not control."
The European Commission's patience with the company snapped in April after three settlement bids failed to satisfy critics. EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager fired off a so-called statement of objections, or SO, threatening fines and enforced changes to the way search results are displayed. While the Mountain View, California-based company's formal response isn't public, Kent Walker, Google's general counsel, summarized Thursday the written reply in a blog posting.
He ridiculed as "peculiar and problematic" demands by EU antitrust regula- tors to change the way it displays search results. Having made its points in writing, Google prefers to avoid a verbal match with EU officials at a behind-closed-doors hearing where its rivals would also get a chance to shine. "During a hearing, things can go both ways -- you can also be grilled even further," said Ramon Tremosa i Balcells, a Catalan Liberal member of the European Parliament who has followed the Google case.
Google has informed the commission that it is not requesting a hearing, said Ricardo Cardoso, a spokesman for the regulator. "It is common for companies to ask for an oral hearing but it doesn't happen all the time," he said. Google didn't immedi- ately respond to questions about the lack of a hearing. More than a decade ago another U.S. tech giant took a different path to Google. Microsoft requested a hearing with the EU but that didn't prevent the software company from getting a 497 millioneuros ($561 million) penalty. Hearings can make a difference. Thirteen of the world's biggest banks succeeded at a face-to-face confrontation last year to unsettle an EU case into the credit-default swaps market. While after a hearing the EU would usually move to the penalty stage, officials were forced to re-open the investigation and carry out a review of documents in the case, people familiar with the matter said earlier this year.