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Snappers attack Google Image problem, demand action from EC officials

And what of those seemingly cosy chats between Almunia and Schmidt?

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Google is facing yet more gripes about its business practices in Europe, after a lobby group representing photographers and picture agencies lodged a formal complaint with competition officials in Brussels.

A spokesman at antitrust commissioner Joaquin Almunia's office confirmed to The Register that it had received the complaint from the Centre of the Picture Industry (CEPIC).

The outfit claims:

The complaint addresses Google’s various unauthorised uses of third-party images in its horizontal Web Search and its specialised services, in particular Google Images. Google increasingly uses on-line images without the rightholders’ consent, sometimes even against their explicit will.

Since the redesign of Google Images in January 2013, the situation got worse: Google presents images in full size and high resolution on its site and enables users to download them without ever having to click through to the original website hosting the image. Google does not even inform users properly about the origin of images and their copyright protection.

CEPIC said that Google was diverting eyeballs away from image owners by serving up their content on its own services.

It also claimed that the ad giant had, since this summer, been using third-party images without the consent of copyright-holders for its "direct answers" service on its result pages via the company's "knowledge graph".

The group argues that Google is abusing its dominant position in search - it commands around 90 per cent of the market in Europe - by "exploiting" third-party images.

"The search engine has turned itself into a provider of 'free' content and fuels online piracy at its sole profit," CEPIC claimed.

The group has waded in late to a now three-year-long investigation of Google's alleged abuse of dominance in the EU. The company issued a revised package of concessions in October which, it hopes, adequately address the concerns laid out by Almunia in a move to offset Google being whacked with sanctions that could include a fine as high as 10 per cent of its annual worldwide turnover.

CEPIC claimed that, while Brussels' competition wing was scrutinising complaints brought against Google from its rivals in the search biz, Mountain View had "expanded the scope of its unauthorised use of third party content".

The group described the apparent strategy as "ruthless".

CEPIC demanded among other things that:

The picture industry ... expects to be provided with adequate tools to protect their images from illegal downloads via Google. As Google’s unauthorised use of images and online piracy increase, it is essential that Google accepts and implements adequate technical solutions for the protection of image providers.

Earlier this week, publishers lobbied the European Commission to come down hard on Google by arguing that the corporation's proposal, as it stands, should be rejected for failing to adequately address legitimate competition concerns.

Eyeballs, chitchat and all that

On Thursday, Almunia said at his weekly presser that he was working hard to closely assess all the opinions he had received from complainants in the Google probe.

He said:

If there are commitments which are sufficient to be made legally binding in order not only to solve the problems we have seen when looking back, but also to avoid that more distortions occur in the future. If this is the case then we can make these commitments legally binding.

If on the other hand the response to this question, in our opinion, is negative, then we will follow the path towards a prohibition decision with the obligation to cease what is considered abusive and the need on the company's side to look for a way not to commit more abuses.

An under pressure Almunia added that lots of viewpoints were continuing to flood into his office.

"There are very well-argued opinions that go in one direction and very well-argued opinions that go exactly in the opposite direction. In the end it is our decision. But right now we still have some time to take the decision," he added.

But doubts about his handling of the case refuse to go away.

UK-based privacy expert Simon Davies is seeking a disclosure of documents from the commission specifically relating to its Google inquiry.

"The request seeks to disentangle some unsettling ethical questions about the Commissioner’s intimate personal interactions with Google executives – in contrast to his more distant and formal dealings with complainants, consumer groups and other stakeholders," Davies said.

He wants access to phone logs, correspondence and documents that show contact between Google and Almunia since February this year.

The commissioner revealed in April that he regularly exchanged text message conversations with Google's chairman Eric Schmidt.

"I have an open phone line, or email line, or SMS line at any moment," he said at the time.

El Reg asked the European Commission about the access request submitted by Davies.

"We will examine this request in line with our policy and established case-law," Almunia's spokesman said. ®

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