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Archive for June 5th, 2012

Ruminations on the Google investigation

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Over the past few months we have provided you with our views on the investigation undertaken by the European Commission with respect to Google. Here is an account of recent developments, thoughts, concerns, readings, ideas, and possible questions to be posed:

The developments. As you all may well know, the Commission has sent Google a preliminary assessment (a necessary formal step towards a commitment decision under Article 9 of Regulation 1/2003) and has requested Google to provide swiftly proposals of possible commitments that could address the concerns set out on that document. For the Commission’s statement identifying in broad terms the practices it objects to, see here.

In parallel, Google has lodged a complaint against Microsoft and Nokia. Google claims that “Nokia and Microsoft are colluding to raise the costs of mobile devices for consumers, creating patent trolls that side-step promises both companies have made. They should be held accountable, and we hope our complaint spurs others to look into these practices“. We have no additional information on this complaint and therefore do not have any opinion on whether it may be well-founded or not, but we regard it as something potentially interesting given that, until now, patent trolls had managed to stay more or less away from the antitrust spotlight in this bout of “patent wars” (note the IPCom settlement).

(By the way, the European Commission has excellent staff working on the unit dealing with cases related to IT, Internet and Consumer Electronics, but they must be incredibly swamped with so many complaints piling up on their desks).

The substantive concerns. We’ve already been quite vocal about our substantive concerns with regard to this case (note the caveat that we speak about matters of principle and on the basis of almost no case-specific information), so we won’t insist on them today.

The policy concern. We fully understand the policy rationale for changing the tone and attempting to address competition concerns in high-tech innovative markets swiftly and on the basis of “negotiated” solutions. However, the increasingly frequent recourse to such solutions also gives rise to several concerns. One of them is that commitment decisions do not contain a final position on the existence or non-existence of an infringement. If such decisions become the standard way of dealing difficult with cases –which would then be left substantively unresolved-, this would imply blurring the contours of the law. Laws should be clear. How can we expect the law on Article 102 to be clear when 14 out of the past 17 abuse of dominance cases were put to an end by virtue of brief and unconclusive commitment decisions? How does one strike the right balance between setting the law straight and addressing competitive concerns rapidly and effectively?

The doubt. (this one is not our’s but Pablo Ibañez’s): does publicly requesting a company to offer commitments fit with the letter and spirit of Article 9 of Regulation 1/2003?

The idea. We feel a bit frustrated by the fact that we’ve spent months thinking about this investigation having no information other than news clips and press releases. We’d love to see how the Commission has framed its concerns regarding Google under current competition law standards. We do not rule out the possibility that we may have been wrong all along, and maybe (although I have my doubts) having a look at the Commission’s preliminary assessment would convince us. How about requesting access to the non-confidential versions of the key documents in the file pursuant to Regulation 1049 as soon as the investigation is over? It could be an interesting exercise…

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Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

5 June 2012 at 9:36 pm