Google prepares for hefty fine by EU watchdog
Brussels — As European Union officials count the days before their annual vacation, Google’s lawyers and lobbyists are hunkering down in Brussels, preparing for what may be a record EU antitrust fine.
A penalty in the shopping-search probe could come within weeks and many expect it to exceed a $1.2bn fine imposed on Intel in 2009.
That would be another show of strength by EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who slapped Apple with a €13bn tax bill in August. Google is a top priority case for her as European politicians and publishers push for action against the company that has come to dominate online advertising.
"If there’s going to be a fine, it has to be the biggest ever," said Stephen Kinsella, a lawyer at Sidley Austin who represents companies that have complained to the EU about Google. "The European Commission has strongly signalled that if there is going to be a fine, it would need to be at a level that would have a deterrent effect."
The commission has signalled that a fine would need to be at a level that would have a deterrent effect
Timing on a decision could slip and Google representatives and the commission both remain tight-lipped, declining to talk about it. The company has not yet met with regulators to discuss a potential EU order or how it might implement any changes, according to a person familiar with the probe.
But the EU has a long tradition of issuing major rulings just before officials quit Brussels for their summer break. Last July, more than $3bn in fines were set for truck makers including Daimler and Volvo.
With one eye on the impending decision, some Google officials have been getting ready, moving vacation dates or making sure they are close to the action, other people familiar with the probe said.
Vestager "has a keen eye to maximising the impact of any announcement on a case and July sees a slowdown in the news cycle", said Christopher Bright, a lawyer at Shearman & Sterling in Brussels who is not involved in the Google probe. "Together with the advanced state of preparation of the case, this points to a July announcement for Google."
Vestager is not afraid of big numbers, setting records with the tax bill for Apple — which it is appealing against — and the cartel fine for truck companies.
The EU also factors in how many years the illegal conduct has lasted. Regulators say the systematic promotion of Google’s own shopping search started in 2008, allowing Google Product Search and Google Shopping to grow more quickly than rival comparison shopping services.