Google Fights Growing Battle Over “Search Neutrality”

The European Union, which has been investigating Google’s (s goog) dominance in web search as a result of complaints from several competitors, is broadening that investigation to include other aspects of the company’s business, EU officials announced today. The EU opened the original case last month, and has now added two German complaints to it — one made by a group of media outlets and one by a mapping company, both of whom claim Google is favoring its own properties unfairly, and also has refused to compensate publishers for their content.

The original case was opened last month by EU competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia, and an official statement from the commission said investigators would be looking at “complaints by search service providers about unfavourable treatment of their services in Google’s unpaid and sponsored search results, coupled with an alleged preferential placement of Google’s own services.”

It isn’t only the EU that has raised concerns about Google treating its own assets and services differently in search results; in a recent Wall Street Journal (s nws) story on the same issue, a number of competitors in a variety of markets — including TripAdvisor (s msft), WebMD (s wbmd) and CitySearch (s iaci) — complained about this preferential treatment by the web giant, saying it was hurting their online businesses by decreasing the amount of traffic they received from the search engine. Google responded with a blog post saying it was concerned only about producing the best results for users, regardless of whose service was being presented in those results.

Although competition laws are somewhat different in Europe than they are in the United States — where antitrust investigators have to show consumers have been harmed by an abuse of monopoly power, not just that competitors have been harmed — the EU investigation is sure to increase the heat on the web giant. Iit comes at an especially inopportune time, since Google is trying to get federal approval for its purchase of travel-information service ITA. Competitors have complained that if Google buys the company, it will be incorporated into travel-related search results in an unfair way.

Washington Post columnist Steve Pearlstein raised similar concerns about Google’s growing dominance in a recent piece, arguing the company should be prevented from buying major players in other markets because it’s so dominant in web search. Google responded by arguing it competes with plenty of other companies when it comes to acquisitions, and there has been no evidence shown that consumers have been harmed by its growth (I think Pearlstein’s argument is flawed, as I tried to point out in this blog post). Pearlstein has since responded to Google here.

There seems to be a growing attempt to pin Google down based in part on the concept of “search neutrality:”– the idea that the web giant should be agnostic when it comes to search results, in the same way network neutrality is designed to keep carriers from penalizing competitors. Should search be considered a utility in that sense? That’s a tough question. In many ways, the complaints from mapping companies and others seem to be driven in part by sour grapes over Google’s success and their own inability to take advantage of the web properly, as Om argues in a recent GigaOM Pro report (sub. req’d).

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Post and thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user Mark Strozier