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1plusV Lobs Another Antitrust Grenade at Google

By Erika Morphy
Jun 29, 2011 5:00 AM PT

French search company 1plusV has stepped up its battle with Google over how its algorithms rank sites, filing suit against the search engine giant in the French Commercial Court. It is seeking US$423 million in damages from business it claims it lost due to alleged antitrust practices by Google.

1plusV Lobs Another Antitrust Grenade at Google

At $423 million, it is the largest claim filed against Google in Europe to date.

This is not, however, the only accusation of anticompetitive behavior lodged against the search engine in Europe. Google has been the target of a handful of accusations, including prior complaints lodged by 1plusV.

In February of this year, 1plusV, which develops specialized search engines for such topics as law and music, turned to the European Commission for redress. In 2010, one of its subsidiaries, Ejustice.fr, along with UK price comparison site Foundem and Microsoft's Ciao from Bing, registered complaints with the EC.

The common thread running through these complaints is that Google's search rankings rated these sites lower than warranted. 1PlusV and other companies have also claimed that competing search engines are required to use Google search technology if they want to display Google ads on their sites.

Further, 1plusV maintains that Google blacklisted its search engines for three years starting in 2007 -- hence its determination that it suffered $423 million in losses.

Because of these complaints the European Commission formalized its antitrust investigation into Google in December 2010 by initiating proceedings. Google did not respond to a request to comment for this story, but it has denied these accusations in earlier communications with the E-Commerce Times.

Same Old Same Old

As they stand now, the latest accusations don't appear to amount to much -- or at least to anything new -- in the world of antitrust law.

"They sound like a mirror image of the other complaints against Google," Christopher M. Collins, a partner with Vanderpool, Frostick & Nishanian, told the E-Commerce Times.

"Personally, I would never expect them to concede these allegations," he said, "so the question becomes at what point will it fall to an adverse decision?"

The number of antitrust investigations and accusations is mounting on both sides of the Atlantic, and sooner or later, it will happen, he said.

If and when it does, Collins added, a French court of law would be as likely a venue as the others. "Certainly, this is a big issue in Europe."

European Attitude Toward AntiTrust

The European legal system may be predisposed to such complaints, said Ryan Radia, an analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

"The legal system in Europe treats these complaints much more favorably in terms of the plaintiffs than [courts] do in the U.S.," he told the E-Commerce Times. "In the American courts, plaintiffs bringing antitrust suits rarely win."

This leaves Google open to accusations by any firm that doesn't like its search ranking system, Radia observed.

"The EU is open to suggestions that Google is manipulating search results," he commented -- "no matter that no evidence has ever surfaced that Google does this."

The problem may be bigger than a dispute over how search algorithms are ranked, Collins suggested. Rather these disputes are reflective of fundamentally different approaches and attitudes toward business in the U.S. versus Europe.

"Google should have the ability to protect its own proprietary interests in the services they provide -- they are not a public utility or exclusive source of these services," Collins said. "Simply because they are successful, that doesn't mean they have to develop a charitable approach to what they provide."

Understanding Search

The complexity of search engine ranking and algorithms may also be at play, Radia suggested.

Whenever Google tweaks its algorithms, some companies will lose, and some will win.

"That is just the nature of search," noted Radia, "but a lot of companies can't -- or don't want to -- understand that."

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