BRUSSELS/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – The European Union’s top antitrust regulator, Margrethe Vestager, has made it her mission to stem alleged anti-competitive abuses by big American tech companies, threatening as recently as last month to break up Alphabet Inc’s Google.
But a decision in the most important of three antitrust cases against Google – this one aimed at loosening its stranglehold over Android-powered smartphones – is likely to show just how difficult it is, even for a committed trust-buster like Vestager, to dent the power of the U.S. giants.
The final ruling, expected within the next few months, will likely involve a multi-billion-dollar fine and an end to clauses in licensing agreements that stop smartphone vendors from promoting alternatives to apps such as Google Search and Maps, people familiar with the European Commission’s thinking say.
The decision, which is expected to hew closely to recommendations made in 2016 soon after the probe began, will almost certainly leave Google’s market dominance intact because the incentives to stick with the company are so strong, say industry executives, analysts and even its foes.
Robert Marcus, a former member of Microsoft’s mobile strategy team and now general partner at investment firm Quantum Wave Capital, said it was “virtually impossible” that any EU penalty would “change anything massively for Google.”
The case holds lessons for regulators in Europe and elsewhere as they pursue Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon over practices including anti-competitive conduct, tax avoidance and a cavalier approach to user data and hate speech.
German regulators have shown that targeted measures can force changes in a company’s conduct, such as compelling social media companies to quickly remove hate speech. Tax authorities can close loopholes and change laws to collect more money.
But stimulating competition in markets where products and services are free is a far more difficult undertaking.
“Once someone is entrenched, you can’t say, ‘stop’ and things get better,” said Mark Patterson, a Fordham University law professor who has researched Google antitrust issues.
The Commission declined to comment on the case. Google did not respond to a request for comment.