In Google Challenge of $2.6B Fine, EU Judge Talks of Raising It

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — No love for Google from the EU’s second-highest court on Valentine’s Day, as one judge said a $2.6 billion antitrust fine was “a small amount of cash” for the search engine juggernaut.

Friday’s hearings focused on the validity of the record-setting the 2.4 billion euro ($2.6 billion) fine levied by the European Commission, the EU’s administrative body in 2017. The previous two days of hearings before the Luxembourg-based court focused on the merits of the accusation of anticompetitive behavior.

Google European Commision
European Union Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager announces the $2.6 billion fine against Google over its online shopping service in 2017. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

The appeal, known as the “Google Shopping” case, was brought by Google to fight the commission’s finding that the tech giant had abused its monopoly in internet search to undercut competitors of its Comparison Shopping Service.

Google’s lawyer Christopher Thomas was left scrambling for an answer when asked by Judge Colm Mac Eochaidh of Ireland, one of the five judges on the panel, if he would personally miss 2.4 euros ($2.6). Eochaidh implied the fine – at the time the highest ever handed down by the commission – was pocket change for a company which booked $110 billion in profits that same year alone.

The record was broken in 2018 by a 4.3 billion euro ($4.7 billion) fine against Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc., for favoring its own apps in the Android mobile phone platform app store. Google argued that fine was intended to make headlines rather than be a reasonable sanction. Google has already paid the fine and adjusted its business practices.

All three days of hearings ran late. While giving the penultimate statement on the final day, Thomas Hoppner, who represents several publishing trade groups, was interrupted by another lawyer from his own side and told to wrap up his statements, as they were substantially over time.

Under the concept of universal jurisdiction given to the court by its charter, the European General Court judges could eliminate, reduce or even increase the fine.

The latter was a topic hotly debated by lawyers for Google, who were caught off guard when informed by one of the judges that in a previous case the court had increased a fine. Google lawyer Christopher Thomas said he would have to “look into it” when it was pointed out to him that in 2007, the court increased a fine against German chemical manufactured BASF for price-fixing after the company appealed to the court for a reduction.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission had investigated Google for similar infractions in 2013 but declined to bring any action against the company — a fact Google’s lawyers brought up in their closing arguments. But last year, the Wall Street Journal revealed the U.S. Department of Justice was considering reopening the investigation, which one of the lawyers for the eight parties who joined with the European Union in this case brought to the panel’s attention.

A ruling is expected later this year and could be appealed by either party to the EU’s top court, the Court of Justice.

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