Google gets more time to respond to EU antitrust charges

Alphabet (née Google) has been given yet another extension to file its respond to charges in Europe that it has misused the dominance of its Android mobile platform to lock out competition by promoting its own services over and above others.

Reuters reported the extension today, which gives the company until the last day of this month to file its rebuttal, and follows another extension last month — at the time touted as Google’s last — which pushed the deadline from September 7 to September 20. The original EC deadline for Google’s response was in April so we’re heading for six months later already at this stage (meanwhile the EC’s initial probe of Android complaints dates back to April 2015).

That said, it is common for competition investigations to involve extensions, although — from the complainant point of view — the risk is of the issue being kicked so far into the long glass that any corrective measures come too late.

In the case of the Android antitrust probe, which has focused on complaints that Google uses the OS as a ‘trojan horse’ to embed its own apps and services into smartphone devices at the expense of rivals’, there’s a very real risk of a substantially negative outcome for Google’s business in Europe. Alphabet could face a fine of up to 10 per cent of its annual turnover — which is close to $75BN — if the EC antitrust charges are upheld against it.

At the weekend Reuters reported the EC is preparing to fine the company in the Android probe — citing a charge sheet it had seen, although it did not provide details of the size of the impending fine.

The charge sheet also apparently includes an EC instruction to Google to cease making payments to smartphone makers as an incentive to pre-install its apps.

A spokesperson for the antitrust department declined to comment on those claims but did confirm the latest extensions to the deadlines — which not only cover the Android antitrust investigation but also two other ongoing EC probes of Alphabet/Google services: namely its price comparison service Google Shopping and its AdSense business.

Google now has until October 13 to send the EC its response to the Google Shopping charges, and October 26 to file its response to AdSense.

“In each of these cases, Google asked for additional time to review the documents in the case file. In line with normal practice, the commission analysed the reasons for the request and granted an extension allowing Google to fully exercise its rights of defence,” said Commission spokesperson Ricardo Cardoso in a statement.

There have now been four deadline extensions in all in the Android antitrust investigation, and one apiece for AdSense and Shopping.

The fact Google is having to respond to three investigations simultaneously is likely working in its favor when it comes to obtaining extensions.

The current deadlines in each case means the time for Google to reply, i.e. from the moment the EC issued a formal statement of objections, currently stands at 13 weeks for Shopping; 15 weeks for AdSense; and 27 weeks for Android — although of course there may yet be further extensions.

Reuters also suggested the EC might fine Google in the Shopping probe, citing another charge sheet it has seen. According to its report it’s also possible Google may also be asked to rank rival comparison shopping services in the same way as its own services — with the EC reportedly set to decide later whether it would allow Google to charge competitors for displaying their services prominently.

But again, there’s no official confirmation from the EC at this stage.

Google also recently lost an appeal in the Russian courts over a similar complaint relating to how it operates its Android OS in that market — including how it bundles its apps with the Google Play store; requirements that its OEMs preinstall its Google search engine by default; and give its app icons preferential placement on the first screen of handsets.

Over the summer Russia’s Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) agency imposed a fine of 438M RUB (~$6.7M) on the U.S. search giant and ordered it to comply with the original FAS ruling to amend its agreements with OEMs to stop requiring they bundle its services and restricting others apps/services they can choose.