Heading to the end of his term under a cloud of controversy because of his attempt to give Google a sweetheart deal and end a years-long antitrust investigation, EU competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia lashed out at his critics this week. And he's charging that "irrational" EU politicians, worried about privacy issues with Google's cloud services, have thwarted what he feels was a well-intentioned effort to put this case behind him.
"I don't remember any case that triggered this kind of reaction, even of [a] smaller size," Mr. Almunia said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal this week. "I don't think antitrust investigations should be part of the conventional political debates."
While it's fair to note the uniqueness quality of the criticism Almunia has received for his attempts to proactively settle with Google, it's also fair to point out that he has treated Google far better than previous tech industry goliaths like Microsoft and Intel. Both of those companies were accused of antitrust violations and ultimately charged over $1 billion in fines each. Google, however, was never formally charged. Instead, Mr. Almunia took the unique approach of offering a settlement in lieu of such a charge.
This tactic gave Google years to file bogus settlement proposals, artificially lengthening the abuse it could heap on competitors. Worse than that, perhaps—certainly, according to Google's competitors—the toothless Almunia then accepted a terrible Google settlement offer that let the company off without any real punishment. And as its competitors pointed out ably, the settlement did nothing to curb the abuses at the heart of this case. That is why EU politicians were so outraged by Mr. Almunia's actions.
Furthermore, and as Mr. Almunia has in fact admitted, he was eager to put the Google case behind him before his term as competition commissioner ended in November. This no doubt played a role in his inability to wrangle a tougher deal from Google. He simply wanted the case to conclude. Indeed, after claiming that Google's third settlement offer met his requirements, he was forced to admit that it did not in fact address the primary concerns of the investigation, an embarrassing about-face.
"Google has provoked a lot of emotions and in some cases ... some kind of irrational emotions, of this leviathan that will eliminate all our freedoms, all our privacy, all our rights," he said, which never addressing why such legitimate concerns are irrational. "And I think it isn't logical."
That someone as immersed in Google's business practices would think that is troubling. As troubling is his related xenophobia claim, that EU politicians are worried that EU tech companies are "lagging behind" US tech giants like Google. Which is undercut by the fact that the chief competitor standing up to Google is US tech giant Microsoft.
"I don't know if Google will improve the commitments [in a fourth settlement proposal], as I am asking them to do," Almunia said. "The next logical step" is formal antitrust charges. That was the first logical step, actually: Had he treated the EU as he did Microsoft and Intel, Google would have been formally charged three years ago.
As for Google, one senior executive of the firm this week said that he "welcomed" antitrust scrutiny. As you may know, the EU is also—slowly—investigating other potential Google antitrust abuses, including that of the Android mobile OS.
"I'm glad the EU is looking at [Android]," Google vice president Sundar Pichai said, also to the WSJ. "We welcome scrutiny on this ... We require Google services, but don't forget from a user experience standpoint we have to make sure that when you pick up a phone people can do things with it. We require that many of these applications be installed. They're not exclusive, they're not default."
Actually, that's not true. Google's applications are indeed the default on Android devices, as the WSJ pointed out. Mr. Pichai's response to that correction is perhaps telling.
"I can't comment on all the specifics, but this is why we welcome scrutiny from the right people," he answered. The right people not being journalists, apparently, but rather the EU antitrust officials that Google has been able to manhandle more easily.
Wake up, Europe. This is your chance to do the right thing.