Google appears to have violated EU competition rules with business practices related to its Android operating system for smartphones and tablets, the European Commission said Wednesday following a year-long investigation.
The findings put Google at risk of hefty fines if it refuses to cooperate with the European Union and change its procedures. It is the second time that the commission, the EU's executive, has gone after the US internet giant for suspected competition violations.
"In Europe you can be big, you can grow, you can be dominant," EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said in Brussels. "The one thing you can't do is to misuse or abuse your dominant position to stay there and to close off competition."
About 80 per cent of mobile devices in Europe use Android, notably low-price smartphones and tablets. Google controls 90 per cent of the European markets for general internet search services, licensable mobile operating systems and Android app stores.
But the commission believes that the company violated the EU's strict competition rules by requiring manufacturers to pre-install Google's search engine and Chrome web browser on devices that use any other of its licensed apps, such as the popular Google Play app store.
This blocks competitors and limits manufacturer and consumer choices on which search engine and browser to use, the commission argued.
Manufacturers wishing to install Google apps on their devices were also prevented from using competitors' modified versions of Android, while companies that offered Google Search as the exclusive search engine on their mobile devices were provided financial incentives, the commission said.
These "unjustified" restrictions and conditions are part of a wider Google strategy that is meant to "protect and expand its dominant position in internet search," Vestager said.
"As a result of Google's behaviour, rival search engines, mobile operating systems and web browsers have not been able to compete on their merits, but rather been artificially excluded from certain business opportunities," she noted.
"We believe that Google's behaviour denies consumers a wider choice of mobile apps and services and stands in the way of innovation by other players," Vestager added.
The commission on Wednesday sent a so-called statement of objections to Google spelling out its concerns. The company now has 12 weeks to respond. Vestager said she would "carefully consider" its arguments.
Google's business has been under EU scrutiny for years, after competitors complained about its supremacy in the internet search-engine market. The commission last year said it also suspects the Google Shopping service of having violated EU competition laws.
Vestager rejected suggestions on Wednesday that the EU is cracking down on US companies to protect its own industry or is out of step with other countries - such as the United States and Canada - that have found fewer issues with Google business practices.
"I think it's very important to enforce competition law in order for consumers to enjoy the effects of competition – better products, lower prices, more innovation," she said.
Her actions were welcomed Wednesday by consumer advocates and companies that have complained about Google to the EU.