French authorities have finally got some kind of ruling against Google (NSDQ: GOOG) – but it turns out to be rather toothless.
The competition watchdog, L’Autorité de la Concurrence, in an opinion expressed to the finance minister, says Google is “dominant” in search advertising (no surprise there – Google’s search share in Europe is far higher than in the U.S.).
But it did not rule Google that is abusing that dominance, instead saying: “This dominance is, of course, not wrong in itself: it is the result of a tremendous effort of innovation, backed by significant and ongoing investment. Only the abuse of such market power could be sanctioned against.”
The authority says it has reviewed the search advertising market and defined what would constitute anti-competitive acts within it. But it has stopped short of actually testing Google or anyone else against those definitions, saying: “The authority, which is acting in an advisory capacity, did not rule on the legality of such practices … investigations are often long and complex.”
In other words, the authority’s determination in no way leads to a kind of “Google Tax” that some had been considering.
The authority’s most concrete ammunition is aimed at Google News, in defence of what it calls “the special case of the press”. Denouncing “a form of economic parasitism”, it says news publishers should be able to request exclusion of their material from Google News, separately from whether their sites are crawled by Google’s main search service. L’Autorité de la Concurrence says it is falling in with a recent Italian ruling on this.
Update: Google tells us: This has actually always been possible, and we made the process easier in December 2009 – here’s the announcement.”
It says it “welcomes” the consortium recently founded by eight French news publishers to jointly operate paid digital news kiosks – an opinion that will wipe out any notion that such collaboration might attract cartel concerns.
“The press is now facing the challenge of digital and it would not be overly serious to designate Google as the main cause of difficulties experienced by this sector,” the authority states.
Responding to the concerns of publishers, who fear Google robbing their advertising clients, the authority says the government should table amended laws that would force Google to give more disclosure on how much it pays out via AdSense, possibly via a third party.
Google is likely to consider all of this a bit of a curiosity. Indeed, it is really a side-show to the European Commission’s own antitrust investigation in to Google’s search and advertising habits.