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10 weeks to respond: Cleary Gottlieb called in to handle EU competition claims against Google

Google’s lawyers at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton have been given 10 weeks to respond to the European Commission’s charges that the search engine abused its dominant position to favour its own price comparison service.

The saga began in 2009 when price comparison website Foundem alleged that Google had systematically lowered its ranking on the search engine and 30 other complaints followed from the likes of Microsoft and holiday websites Expedia and TripAdvisor.

Google’s defence is being handled by Cleary Gottlieb’s London-based competition partner Maurits Dolmans and Brussels-based counterparts Thomas Graf and Robbert Snelders. An in-house legal team made up of former Cleary Gottlieb associate Oli Bethell, former Herbert Smith associate Jenny Coombes and director of competition Julia Holtz are coordinating the efforts.

The complainants have instructed a number of leading competition lawyers, with Fairsearch, a consortium of 15 members, represented by Clifford Chance’s antitrust chairman Thomas Vinje and Covington & Burling’s Miranda Cole representing Microsoft and travel websites Expedia and Trip Advisor.

The European Commission announced yesterday (15 April) that its five-year investigation had concluded the search engine, which has market share of over 90% in most EU countries, has ranked Google Shopping in highly prominent positions irrespective of its merits. The Commission argues that this badly impacted on its rivals and that ‘users do not necessarily see the most relevant comparison shopping results in response to their queries’.

Google has the right to a hearing over the charges and if unsuccessful, could face a fine of up to 10% of its turnover, which in 2014 amounted to over $66bn. The Commission has also opened a separate antitrust investigation into Google’s conduct in the mobile phone market, airing concerns that its Android platform may have entered into anti-competitive agreements for applications and abused its market dominant position.

The EU’s recently appointed competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager said: ‘I am concerned that the company has given an unfair advantage to its own comparison shopping service, in breach of EU antitrust rules. Google now has the opportunity to convince the Commission to the contrary. However, if the investigation confirmed our concerns, Google would have to face the legal consequences and change the way it does business in Europe.’