Google wins fight against Streetmap

By Nikolaos Theodorakis

Google secured a legal victory on February 12, as a London court ruled that a clickable map display box on the company’s search page did not harm competition.[1] In essence, the court rejected Streetmap’s allegations that the thumbnail display resulted in granting preferential treatment for Google Maps.

A London High Court handed down the judgment following a two-week preliminary trial in November. Streetmap, a UK provider, accused Google that it abused its power via bundling Google Search with Google Maps. In fact, Streetmap alleged that its traffic drastically dropped following Google’s action to automatically display a clickable thumbnail map once someone searches for a specific address or venue. This practice began in 2007, and Streetmap associated it with a huge loss of traffic and, consequently, profit. It claimed that its market share significantly shrunk, and is not on the verge of collapsing, as a result of Google’s policy.

Streetmap argued that, by using the thumbnail display, Google did not compete on the quality of its map service and that it should have displayed third-party maps in its search results. Google counter-argued that it bears no obligation to incorporate other maps in its results. It argued that in fact, thumbnail maps benefit consumers and form an integral part of its search service. Such conduct improves the quality of its service and makes Google more appealing to customers. It also argued that thumbnail maps do not amount to bundling or unjustified discrimination.

Mr. Justice Roth ruled that Google’s introduction of the new-style Maps OneBox in 2007 was “not reasonably likely appreciably to affect competition in the market for online maps” and that Google’s conduct was “objectively justified”. The judge found that, assuming that Google held a dominant position, it did not commit an abuse. His argument was that “…on consideration of all the evidence that the introduction of the new-style Maps OneBox in June 2007 did not in itself have an appreciable effect in taking customers away from Streetmap.” Further, “if contrary to my primary finding, it was likely to have such an effect, Google’s conduct in that regard was objectively justified.”

The judge also held that Streetmap did not appear to regard the thumbnail maps as a threat to its ability to compete for several years. Since the party most closely involved in the market, and hence most at risk, did not pursue a case earlier, they are unlikely to be actually affected by Google’s policy. In other words, if Streetmap was actively affected by the thumbnail map practice, it would have reacted sooner.

In reaction to the decision, Google said that the court recognized that the company is trying to improve the quality of its services and that the decision altogether promotes innovation. Streetmap, on the other hand, argued that the subject matter of the case belongs to a new field of competition law that merits further legal exploration. Streetmap further suggested that the judge did not apply the appropriate tests to determine whether there has been an effect in the relevant markets and if Google rightfully did so.

In terms of future steps, Streetmap plans to turn to the Court of Appeal since the High Court judge dismissed its entire claim and declined permission to appeal the judgment. The company asked for 35 days to bring the case before the Court of Appeal and further challenge the case.

In particular, Streetmap wishes to appeal the judgment on two grounds: first, Streetmap claims that the decision is unfavorable for small businesses since it raises the threshold of information required to prove causal effect. If the standard of proof rises from probability to appreciable effect, then a complainant needs to have information that will, under normal circumstances, only be known to the dominant company. In other words, raising the burden of proof will make it more difficult to establish a violation. Second, Streetmap suggests that Google is not compliant vis-à-vis its legal obligations since it did not conduct a UK test when introducing Google Maps to examine what would the effects be on the market. Instead, it relied on the effects its service had on the U.S. market, which does not necessarily reflect the UK market reality.

This case settles Google’s obligations in connection with its dominant position in the mapping context, at least for now. On a relevant note, Google is facing two ongoing antitrust investigations with the European Commission: one into allegations that the company gives preference to its own services in search results, and the other into alleged restrictions on its mobile-operating system, Android.

[1] Link to the case available here: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2016/253.html

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