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Microsoft turns to Europe for help in antitrust fight against Google

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Microsoft lodged a formal complaint against Google on Thursday with European regulators, accusing its rival of unfairly stifling competition as antitrust officials around the world take a closer look at the search giant.

The move is the latest attempt by Microsoft — itself a vet­eran of epic antitrust battles from the 1990s — to convince officials that Google is using its dominance online to block the success of other tech firms. Microsoft, which has a competing search engine named Bing, brought its concerns all the way to Europe in part because regulators there have been more aggressive in their scrutiny of Google than their U.S. counterparts.

Last year European Union antitrust officials launched a broad inquiry into the company’s practices. By contrast, U.S. officials have refrained from beginning a formal investigation of Google, limiting their consideration to individual acquisitions proposed by the tech behemoth.

“We’re not surprised that Microsoft has done this. . . . For our part, we continue to discuss the case with the European Commission and we’re happy to explain to anyone how our business works,” Google said in a statement.

Antitrust cops are one of the biggest threats to Google’s power. The company has enjoyed a dominant share of the search market for years, but as it expands into new areas of business beyond search, including electronic book sales and mobile phone platforms, it is encountering new enemies and critics who are not shy about bringing their concerns to government officials.

Microsoft said it was particularly concerned about Google’s position in Europe, where it said regulators put the company’s market share at 95 percent.

“As troubling as the sitaution is in the United States, it is worse in Europe,” wrote Brad Smith, senior vice president and general counsel at Microsoft, in a company blog post published late Wednesday. “That is why our filing today focuses on a pattern of actions that Google has taken to entrench its dominance in the markets for online search and search advertising to the detriment of European consumers.”

Joaquin Almunia, the E.U. antitrust chief, is in Washington this week meeting with U.S. antitrust officials and lawmakers on Capitol Hill about a broad array of issues.

“We have a lot of work to do,” he said of the E.U. investigation of Google. “These markets are extremely dynamic and we have to understand how these markets work.”

Almunia said that Google had been cooperative with the commission’s requests for information and that his staff was reviewing complaints from a number of companies.

Microsoft, in its complaint, alleged a slew of unfair practices by Google, including a charge that Google is limiting access by other search engines to YouTube videos.

Microsoft also accused Google of not allowing companies who buy ads from the company to access their own data, a charge that Google has repeatedly denied.

Smith, in his blog post, acknowledged the irony of Microsoft leveling the charge that another tech firm had grown too large.

“Having spent more than a decade wearing the shoe on the other foot with the European Commission, the filing of a formal antitrust complaint is not something we take lightly,” he wrote.

He added, “This is the first time Microsoft Corporation has ever taken this step. More so than most, we recognize the importance of ensuring that competition laws remain balanced and that technology innovation moves forward.”

This year could be pivotal for Google as antitrust officials increase their scrutiny and a new chief executive, co-founder Larry Page, takes the helm later this month.

The Justice Department is on the verge of deciding whether to greenlight an acquisition proposed by Google to buy a travel search technology firm — a deal that has sparked complaints from companies, including Expedia and Travelocity, who worry that Google will wipe them out once it enters the airline flight search business. Microsoft has also pushed the Justice Department to block the deal since its Bing search engine offers a travel search function.

Critics of Google’s attempt to digitize all books won a major victory last week when a federal judge blocked the company’s class-action settlement with publishers and authors over the fate of out-of-print books that Google wants to put online and commercialize. As part of the decision, the judge cited concerns that the settlement would leave too much power in the hands of Google.

The tech firm also faces concern on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers have called for hearings on whether Google is abusing its dominance. Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), chair of the Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, said in March that examining Google’s position in the search market would be one of his priorities in the new congressional session.

© The Washington Post Company