For weeks there has been speculation, both private and public, that the European Commission’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, will tomorrow make some sort of announcement regarding its investigation into Google. Vestager is scheduled to fly to America for a meeting of competition officials at the American Bar Association in Washington DC tomorrow. And the belief is that saying something publicly would allow her to comment on the case beyond mere homilies.
Europe has been investigating Google for anti-competitive practices for five years. Vestager will be anxious to reassure Americans that any move Europe makes will be in the interest of European consumers and adhering to competition law, not anti-American sentiments (though statements from Gunther Oettinger, the commissioner for the “digital economy” in Europe, might lead some to think otherwise).
So what exactly will Vestager say? According to David Wood, legal counsel for ICOMP—a lobbying organization sponsored by Microsoft, one of the complainants in the case—one of three things is likely to happen.
1) The European Commission sends Google a statement of objections and issues a press release listing the charges.
From the EU’s antitrust manual (pdf, p.112):
The purpose of the [statement of objections] is to inform the parties concerned of the objections raised against them with a view to enabling them to exercise their rights of defence in writing and orally (at the hearing). The undertakings concerned must be provided with all the information they need to defend themselves effectively and to comment on the allegations made against them.
This is the most extreme case. A statement of objections is a formal notice informing a company of the charges against it. It is the culmination, rather than the start of, proceedings against a company. Once a company receives the statement, it has the right to challenge the Commission in court, a process that inevitably takes years.
2) The European Commission says it will send Google a statement of objections.
Everything above applies, but there’s nothing to do about any of it. Google cannot really respond, since it has no formal grounds to do so. But the rest of us can—and will—speculate like crazy about what it all means.
3) The competition commissioner says she has informed her colleagues on the progress of the case.
The biggest anti-climax of them all. Since everybody expects something to happen, something must happen (caveat: maybe not, see point 4), even if that thing is nothing. However, even this is some progress. It allows Vestager to talk to some degree about the investigation and sets up expectations. Europe will announce its agenda for a “digital single market” on May 6, and the Google case is very much part of that. So even a say-nothing statement is an acknowledgement that there is some action behind the scenes. Maybe. Perhaps.
Nothing happens. Just putting that in here to be safe.
This is Brussels. You never know.
The bottom line:
Whether the commission issues a statement of objections tomorrow, next week, or next month, it now seems undeniable that one is coming. Europe and Google have already failed to agree on three previous settlements and Vestager has signaled her unwillingness to settle (paywall) with Google. And once a statement is out, things don’t look good for Google: according to data gathered by ICOMP (pdf, p.2), no company has ever been cleared after a statement of objections has been issued.
Google did not respond to a request for comment.