Google loses Brussels battle over €2.4bn search fine

Google has failed to overturn a €2.4bn (£2.1bn) EU fine for abusing its search engine monopoly, marking a key legal setback in its battles with Brussels.

The EU’s General Court in Luxembourg largely upheld the 2017 penalty and the EU decision that the company had illegally squeezed out rivals to its shopping service.

However, Google won a victory in a separate battle in the British courts, when it successfully blocked an attempt from campaigners to sue it on behalf of millions of iPhone owners.

The Supreme Court reversed a 2019 Court of Appeal decision that allowed the campaign group Google You Owe Us to claim billions in damages against the search giant for tracking iPhone users without their permission.

Wednesday’s decision in the EU court is a significant victory for Margrethe Vestager, Europe’s competition chief, who has had previous decisions against big tech companies overturned.

EU Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager has been a thorn in the side for Silicon Valley Big tech

Credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

The EU has fined Google a total of €8.5bn in three separate competition cases since 2017 and has contested each of them. Opponents said its legal defeat could make Google vulnerable to further competition fines.

“Today’s judgement delivers the clear message that Google’s conduct was unlawful and it provides the necessary legal clarity for the market,” the European Commission said.

Google was fined in 2017 after a seven-year investigation into claims that it had used the dominance of its search engine to promote its own shopping service at the expense of others. The investigation had been triggered after a complaint from Foundem, the British price comparison site.

Shivaun Raff, Foundem’s chief executive, said the decision could expose Google to a series of other cases such as the company’s jobs and travel services.

“Today’s judgment provides the Commission with a firm basis to now enforce its June 2017 prohibition decision – not just for the beleaguered comparison shopping market directly addressed by the decision, but also for the travel, local, jobs and other vertical search markets for which this decision sets a precedent,” she said.

Ms Vestager, who has been a thorn in the side of Silicon Valley companies, had been dealt defeats in the General Court on tax cases involving Amazon and Apple. 

Google may choose to appeal the case further. It said: “This judgement relates to a very specific set of facts and while we will review it closely, we made changes back in 2017 to comply with the European Commission’s decision.”

Google won a minor victory with the decision, which overturned the Commission’s finding that its conduct had distorted competition in the search engine market.

In the separate UK court decision, Lord Leggatt said Richard Lloyd, who had led the campaign group, could not bring a “representative case” on behalf of millions of iPhone users. Mr Lloyd had said millions could be entitled to £750 each for Google tracking them without consent in 2011 and 2012

The company had dismissed the action in the High Court in 2018 but the Court of Appeal had overturned the ruling in 2019, leading Google to take it to the Supreme Court.

Lord Leggatt said Mr Lloyd could not bring the case because the claimants could not show that each of the 4.4m iPhone users had suffered an equal amount of damage.

Following the decision, Mr Lloyd said: “We are bitterly disappointed that the Supreme Court has failed to do enough to protect the public from Google and other Big Tech firms who break the law. They have overturned a very clear ruling by senior, expert judges in the Court of Appeal.”

Google said: “This claim was related to events that took place a decade ago and that we addressed at the time. People want to know that they are safe and secure online, which is why for years we’ve focused on building products and infrastructure that respect and protect people’s privacy.”

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