The European Commission on Wednesday accused Google of antitrust violations, saying in a so-called statement of objections that the online giant has been using its position in Internet search to favor its own services.
The Commission also unveiled a probe into Google's Android mobile software.
The decision comes after a nearly five-year investigation and more than two dozen antitrust complaints in Europe against the company and was announced by EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager in Brussels.
"The European Commission has sent a statement of objections to Google alleging the company has abused its dominant position in the markets for general Internet search services in the European Economic Area by systematically favoring its own comparison shopping product in its general search results pages," the Commission said. "The Commission's preliminary view is that such conduct infringes EU antitrust rules because it stifles competition and harms consumers."
The Commission said it would also continue its ongoing investigation under EU antitrust rules of other aspects of Google's behavior, "including the favorable treatment by Google in its general search results of other specialized search services and concerns with regard to copying of rivals’ web content (known as "scraping"), advertising exclusivity and undue restrictions on advertisers."
The Menlo Park, Calif.-based company could face fines in excess of $6 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal. This makes it the largest antitrust case in Europe since regulators levied nearly $2 billion in fines against Microsoft over a decade. It could also affect Google's business and force the company to give competitors more favorable placement in its search results. Critics have said that Google blocks competitors from online map, travel and shopping services.
The Android investigation will focus on "whether Google has entered into anti-competitive agreements or abused a possible dominant position in the field of operating systems, applications and services for smart mobile devices," the Commission said.
Vestager said: "The Commission's objective is to apply EU antitrust rules to ensure that companies operating in Europe, wherever they may be based, do not artificially deny European consumers as wide a choice as possible or stifle innovation...If the investigation confirmed our concerns, Google would have to face the legal consequences and change the way it does business in Europe."
Google has 10 weeks to respond to the changes and could request a hearing. A final decision could come by the end of the year. After that, Google could appeal any decision, meaning the overall process could take years.
In an internal memo to Google employees obtained by Recode, the company lays out its case that it has not violated EU rules on stifling competition.
We have a very strong case, with especially good arguments when it comes to better services for users and increased competition:
Better services for users: Google Search has improved tremendously since the days of ten blue links. We can now answer many queries directly, saving users huge amounts of time and effort --whether it’s the weather, directions to the local pharmacy, flights, or where to get the cheapest camera.
Increased competition: The competition is just one click away -- and it’s growing. People can use Bing, Yahoo, Quora, DuckDuckGo, and a new wave of search assistants like Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, as well as more specialized services like Amazon, Idealo, Le Guide, Expedia, or eBay. In addition, users increasingly turn to social networks like Facebook and Twitter to find news and suggestions -- where to eat or which movies to watch.
The memo continues:
Competition online is thriving -- despite what many of the complainants in this case allege. Indeed if you look at shopping, it’s clear that there’s a ton of competition (including from Amazon and eBay) that has not been harmed by Google’s own shopping service.
"Google should be expected to fight it, and so it could take years to sort itself out," said Bernstein analyst Claudio Aspesi. "Monetary penalties - within reason - will not matter much. Changes to how the company operates, on the other hand, could have huge consequences."
Google controls about 90 percent of the online search market in Europe, experts have said. Other tech giants, such as Microsoft, have urged the EU to bring the case, pushing for more competition.
A version of this article was first published by The Hollywood Reporter.