£3.5bn fine for Google from EU over Android’s anti-competition activities

One of the European Union’s highest courts has largely upheld a huge fine issued to Google by the bloc’s anti-competition watchdog in 2018 over the tech giant’s Android mobile operating system

European Union Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager
European Union Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager

The European Court of Justice’s General Court mostly confirmed a European Commission decision to slap Google with a fine of more than four billion euros for stifling competition through the dominance of Android.

The court said it was appropriate to impose a fine of €4.125bn (£3.5 billion) on Google, slightly lower than the original €4.34bn penalty. In addition, the court said its reasoning for the decision differed “in certain respects” from the Commission’s.

The fine is one of three anti-competition penalties totalling more than €8bn (£6.9bn) that the European Commission imposed on Google between 2017 and 2019.

In its original decision, the Commission said Google’s practices restrict competition and reduce choices for consumers.

It determined that Google broke EU rules by requiring smartphone makers to take a bundle of Google apps if they wanted any at all, as well as preventing them from selling devices with altered versions of Android.

The bundle of Google apps contained 11 titles, including YouTube, Maps and Gmail, but regulators focused on the three that had the biggest market share: Google Search, Chrome and the company’s Play Store for apps.

Google was also dealt a hefty financial blow in South Korea, where the country’s privacy watchdog handed down a fine of of 69.2 billion won (£43.3m) for tracking consumers’ online behaviour without their consent and using their data for targeted advertisements.

South Korea’s Personal Information and Protection Commission said it fined Google, as well as Meta (which was fined 30.8 billion won; £19.05m), after a meeting where officials agreed the companies’ business practices might cause serious privacy infringements.

The fines are the biggest penalties imposed by South Korea for privacy law violations, the commission said in a press release. Both companies rejected the commission’s findings, with Meta indicating that it could challenge the fine in court.

The fines can be appealed through administrative cases, which must be filed within 90 days after the companies are formally notified of the commission’s decision.

According to the commission, Google and Meta (which operates Facebook and Instagram) did not clearly inform users or obtain their consent as they collected information about their online activities when they used other websites or services outside their own platforms.

Such data was used to analyse their interests and create individually customised advertisements, the commission said.

The commission ordered the companies to provide an “easy and clear” process of consent giving people more control over whether to share information about what they do online.

“Google did not clearly inform consumers that it would collect and use their behavioural information about their use of other companies’ (services) when they signed up,” the commission said.

“Meta did not present the content of consent in a way that could be easily seen by consumers when they signed up and just included the content in their full data policy statement.

“It did not specifically inform consumers of the legally required notifications and did not obtain their consent.”

The commission said the companies’ practices seriously threatened privacy rights as more than 82 per cent of South Koreans using Google and more than 98 per cent using Meta have let the companies track their online activities.

Google disagreed with the commission’s findings. In a statement, it said that it has always demonstrated a commitment to “making ongoing updates that give users control and transparency”.

The company said it will review the commission’s findings once it receives the fully written decision.

Meta said it will consider “all options”, including seeking a ruling from court. “We are confident that we work with our clients in a legally compliant way that meets the processes required by local regulations,” Meta said in an emailed statement.

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