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Marketplace Morning Report

Meet the woman leading the EU’s case against Google

David Brancaccio May 4, 2015
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Google has its hands full in Europe, where antitrust regulators have accused it of abusing its power to, among other things, favor its business partners in search results.

Google denies wrongdoing.

The European Union Commissioner for Competition  Margrethe Vestager is leading the charge against the company. We talked with her about the case, another high-profile investigation and more. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

This EU complaint against Google comes after a five-year investigation, give me a sense of what you’re concerned about.

It is pretty simple. The concern is that Google, which is a huge, successful company in Europe, is using its very dominant position in general search to favor its own services in related markets. You can’t do that, due to European competition law.

So when I look up something on Google in Europe, it might turn up whatever the search finds, but it might sometimes favor some of the people it has business relationships with, and that would violate your rules?

Yes, because as a consumer you would expect to get the best answer to your query. And if, systematically, you get the Google service as the answer to your query, that may not be the best thing. Then other companies may wonder, “Should we invest in new and innovative products if we can never be found by Google?” And therefore the risk is, as a consumer, you get less choice and fewer innovative products to look at.

In an internal memo to Google’s own employees, the company claimed it’s competing on its merits, in Europe and elsewhere, offers good search service, and that competition to Google is really just a click away and that it hasn’t actually harmed its competition. I know, Commissioner, that you use Google, and you think its a good service. Are you just trying to penalize a company for being very good at what it does?

Oh, no. On the contrary, I and others should congratulate any successful company, because this is great for jobs creation and for growth. But … you need to compete on your merits. To a large extent, Google can just go and do their business and innovate and find new things, but when it comes to being very dominant — in many European countries almost 90 percent of all search is Google search — that requires you to not misuse this position.

Moving on from Google, you’re also leading the effort to investigate the Russi’s state-owned energy firm, Gazprom, for overchargingespecially in Eastern Europe. Are you worried that investigation is going to disrupt international relations at a tense time?

Well, it’s strictly a law-enforcement effort. I’m being very careful, because we have no grudge or anything like that with the Russian state or with Gazprom as a company. Again, it’s a certain conduct. What we see in our preliminary findings, is that Gazprom has enabled themselves to charge maybe 40 percent more for gas in five countries. For the consumer that makes the cost of heating the home, or cooking or any other use of electricity much more expensive than it maybe ought to be.

I have one last question that’s a bit off-point but before we go: there is a Danish television series a bit like the show we know here as “The West Wing”. It’s called “Borgen.” I keep seeing articles suggesting you are the inspiration for the main character, the party leader who becomes Prime Minister. When you watch “Borgen,” do you see yourself in any way?

Of course, it’s always hard to tell when it’s fiction. But you know, she has more or less the same family relations (as me), her husband is also a teacher. The party is very much like the party I belong to, the Social Liberal Party. So there’s a lot of things that look alike. And anyway, I’d recommend it if someone wants to see how Nordic politics work.

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