Google (NSDQ: GOOG), which has faced three antitrust inquiries in the U.S. over the last year, is now facing its first in Europe. The WSJ says that the European Commission has opened a “preliminary probe” into Google at the behest of three European competitors, including Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) subsidiary Ciao, which had filed an antitrust complaint against Google with the Germany Federal Cartel Office last month. The other companies include French legal search engine ejustice.fr and U.K. price comparison site Foundem. In a statement, the EC says that while it is “examining” the complaints, it “has not opened a formal investigation for the time being.”
In a blog post, Google confirms that it has been notified by the EC of the three company’s complaints — and says it is “confident that our business operates in the interests of users and partners, as well as in line with European competition law.” The company then defends itself against the allegations, which include that Google’s algorithms demote results from Foundem and ejustice.fr in the company’s search engine.
The inquiry comes as the EC has finally settled its long standing litigation with Microsoft (Microsoft has agreed to include a ballot screen on all new PCs so that users can easily choose to install a browser other than Internet Explorer if they wish; the new ballot screen was unveiled just last week).
At the same time, rhetoric against Google — which is even more dominant in the European search market than in the U.S. — has been rising. In January, Germany’s Justice minister suggested that the company was becoming “a giant monopoly similar to Microsoft” and also that month French President Nicolas Sarkozy asked his finance minister to examine the possibility of levying a tax on the company.
Microsoft, meanwhile, has suggested that Google would eventually face antitrust scrutiny in Europe. Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said this year that “whenever you have a company that has more than a 90 percent market share in a key market, it is inevitable that people will have questions to ask. We say that with some experience.” And, indeed, in its blog post, Google points out that Microsoft has several links to the new probe, noting not only that Ciao is owned by the company but also that Foundem is a member of an advocacy group that has been funded by Microsoft.