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Microsoft, German publishers hit Google with anti-trust suits

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Google has been hit with a barrage of anti-trust complaints in Germany, with two publisher groups, a mapping firm and a Microsoft-owned ad firm launching an enveloping movement on the ad broker and sometime search firm.

The quartet of actions follow hard on the heels of a Paris-backed pummeling for Google in France, and a little local difficulty in China.

Germany's Federation of Newspaper Publishers and Association of German Magazine Publishers have both taken umbrage at the search engine's serving up of slivers of news articles without payment.

Meanwhile, Euro-Cities, a German mapping firm, has apparently complained that Google's policy of letting just anyone embed Google maps in their sites is anti-competitive and is killing its own business.

Lastly, Ciao, a price comparison and review site owned by Microsoft, is trying to wiggle out of a contract that ties it into showing Google adsense ads. Microsoft claims the deal violates competition rules, a claim which presumably has nothing to do with Microsoft wanting to build its own advertising business.

At first glance, the Microsoft suit smacks of a contractual spat rather than a genuine competition issue. However, the publishers and the mapping firm's complaints are hinting at broader issues.

In the case of mapping, Google has so much cash lying around that it can give stuff away for free - meaning other firms are deprived of their business models. It's the same complaint firms are making in the US about the firm's bid to run the white space database.

And the German publishers' complaints are arguably more significant than the Belgian publishers' complaint that was settled back in 2007.

For a start, they include some heavyweight pan-European players like Axel Springer. Plus since 2007, publishers worldwide have become much more vocal about what they see as Google's free riding on their content, with the likes of Rupert Murdoch happy to call Google a parasite for its co-opting of his content.

It's fair to say that the German intellectual elite may be a little more in tune with the publisher's complaints than they may have been a few years ago.

Last week, German justice minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said the firm was becoming a monopoly. Chancellor Angela Merkel has slated the firm's book scanning project.

Germany's position is broadly in line with France, whose culture minister has slammed Google books, while president Sarkozy has floated the idea of a special Google tax to offset the pain caused to French auteurs and artists by Google-aided piracy.

A Google spokesperson told Bloomberg it was "convinced" that it complied with all the relevant German and European laws.

It would be an incredibly cynical person who would suggest that Google's sudden qualms about working in China and subsequent seeking of Hillary Clinton's protection had anything to do with a suddenly more hostile regulatory environment in Europe. ®

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