Google Maps restrictions trigger competition scrutiny

Germany’s competition regulator is looking into possible abuses related to how Google operates its Maps product.

It’s the latest proceeding the Federal Cartel Office (FCO) has opened against Google — with earlier (ongoing) investigations into the tech giant’s News Showcase licensing practices and its data terms. However the Maps proceeding is the first initiated under tougher abuse controls which have applied to Google’s business in Germany since January — when the regulator determined it meets the threshold for an ex ante  competition law reform that’s targeted at digital giants with “paramount significance for competition across markets”.

The determination lowers the bar for regulatory intervention to address potential competition concerns. So, in practice, it means Google may face more FCO proceedings — which are opened and could be concluded more swiftly — than if the special abuse controls did not apply.

Commenting in a statement on the Google Maps proceeding, Andreas Mundt, president of the FCO, said: “We have information to suggest that Google may be restricting the combination of its own map services with third-party map services, for example when it comes to embedding Google Maps location data, the search function or Google Street View into maps not provided by Google.

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“Among other aspects, we will now examine whether this practice could allow Google to further expand its position of power regarding certain map services. We will also look into the licensing terms and conditions for the use of Google’s map services in vehicles.”

The FCO added that it will be interviewing customers and competitors of the Google Maps Platform as part of the investigation.

Google was contacted for comment. A spokesperson for the company told us:

“Developers and businesses choose to use Google Maps Platform out of many options because they recognize it provides helpful, high-quality information for users. They are also free to use other mapping services in addition to Google Maps Platform – and many do. We always cooperate with regulators and are glad to answer any questions they may have about our business.”

Since the special abuse controls begun applying to its business, Google has made changes to how it operates its news licensing product and suggested some others in an apparent bid to settle that FCO probe.

Although, at the time of writing, the proceeding remains open. Back in January the regulator said it would consult on the changes proposed by Google and continue to monitor the company’s negotiations with publishers over licensing terms.

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The new reality for Google in Germany is a more responsive oversight regime to competition concerns.

Last month the FCO also concluded that Facebook parent, Meta, falls in scope of the ex ante regime — meaning it too faces extra scrutiny over how it operates in the market.

An FCO proceeding to determine whether iPhone maker Apple should also have the designation is ongoing. But, earlier this month, the regulator announced a probe of Apple’s app privacy framework that it said was based on conduct that “can possibly” be classified as meeting the threshold for the special abuse regime to apply, so the FCO looks keen to avoid wasting time in being able to use the proactive powers.

Germany’s competition regulator has also been testing Amazon’s market power to make the same determination since May 2021. So the ecommerce giant could soon face amplified attention to its German ops, too.

Earlier this year, European Union lawmakers agreed on a major ex ante update to competition rules that’s set to come into force early next year  — bringing in a new regime of up-front operational rules that will apply across the bloc for tech giants which meet the definition of internet ‘gatekeepers’. The EU’s Digital Markets Act is backed up by a regime of major penalties for non-compliance.

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