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Google’s European Search Menu Draws Interest of U.S. Antitrust Investigators

  • June 05, 2020

In 2006, Google told antitrust officials that Microsoft should have to give Internet Explorer users a choice of default search engines when starting the browser.

Bill Baer, a former assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, said the agency has in recent years expressed a preference for outcomes in cases or settlements that fundamentally alter a business, like requiring a company to divest aspects of its business.

But when it recently approved the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint, it complemented that kind of structural solution with additional restrictions on the company’s behavior.

Mr. Baer said prosecutors often have settlement discussions even as they prepare for trial, and that he would expect something similar to occur in the Google probe.

“It is often done in parallel,” said Mr. Baer, who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “At some point I think there will be at least a discussion about whether there is a way to remedy this without war.”

Google has agreed to choice menus in other cases, too. In a 2017 settlement with the Russia Federal Antimonopoly Service, Google agreed to update its Chrome browser on Android phones in Russia so that a choice menu would appear, giving users the choice of selecting a default search engine other than Google.

But rivals have taken issue with how Google has implemented the choice menu in Europe. It is limiting the number of non-Google search engine options to three in any country. It is also forcing companies interested in appearing as one of the choices to participate in an auction every three months to bid for how much they are willing to pay each time they are selected as the default option. The three highest bidders appear alongside Google on the menu.

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