The European Commission for Competition is facing significant backlash after its President announced it has reached a preliminary settlement with Google in a major anti-trust suit. Many, including an international coalition of trade associations joined by the NPPA, have criticized the commission for failing to allow interested parties to provide input during negotiations on the terms of the deal.
Google fell under investigation in the EU in 2010 over concerns it was using its massive online presence to unfairly interfere with competitors. In November of 2013, a group led by the Centre of the Picture Industry joined in the suit, filing a complaint against the Internet giant’s use of third-party images. The CEPIC represents more than 900 European picture agencies and libraries.
The complaint accused Google of displaying third-party images without right holders’ consent, and encouraging piracy by allowing users to download unlicensed images directly from search results. It’s the astounding scope of Google Images that makes these activities especially concerning. A search for nearly any imaginable picture on the site yields pages and pages of results. Photographers and picture agencies face an even greater burden because Google’s dominance of the online search industry and use of sophisticated technologies makes it difficult to shield against or remedy infringement, the CEPIC argued.
Whether the proposed settlement will address these concerns remains unclear; advocates have responded to the lack of transparency with requests for greater involvement. “We believe that truly satisfying and workable remedies can be reached in close cooperation with those affected by them, CEPIC President Alfonso Gutierrez said, in a letter to the commission. “If [this] set of commitments is indeed “much better” (as claimed by Reuters), in particular by protecting image providers against their exploitation, a consultation of the interested parties would confirm just that.”
In a press conference Wednesday, Vice President of the European Commission for Competition Joaquin Almunia outlined elements of the settlement he said were very significant moving forward. Almunia said it was important that Google present rival links in a manner comparable with that of its own, and that it maintain that parity as it continues to develop search technology.
What Alumunia’s speech didn’t address was whether any other terms of the settlement, would address concerns of photographers and picture agencies.
“NPPA is severely disappointed by the commission’s unilateral decision to negotiate a settlement without ensuring that the vitally important perspectives of NPPA and other associations were incorporated into the discussions and proposed terms,” said NPPA Executive Director Charles W. L. (“Chip”) Deale, CAE. “We would hope and expect that our concerns about the unauthorized use of images are addressed before any settlement is finalized,” he added.
Almunia pointed to market studies associated with previous settlement proposals as justification for commission’s decision not to solicit input from interested parties previous to drawing up the terms of the deal.
Gutierrez was skeptical of Alumnia’s logic on that point, and also expressed doubt that the current proposal would include protection against Google’s use of unauthorized images, as the two previous plans did not include any such remedy.
The CEPIC-led coalition have an opportunity to voice an opinion on the matter in the form of feedback to a pre-rejection letter that explains why the commission believes the proposed settlement addresses the group’s legal claims. Almunia says he will analyze the feedback from all pre-rejection letters before offering up a final plan to the College of Commissioners for a vote.