Google Images: EU Commish opens new front against Chocolate Factory

Latest RFIs ask awkward questions about copyright

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In its latest round of questions sent to rivals regarding the activities and workings of Google, the European Commission has turned the spotlight on the search giant’s image grabbing facilities.

Its most recent questionnaires (RFIs, or requests for information) contain five pages of detailed questions on the issue, revealed one recipient to El Reg this week.

One question asks if companies can exert control over the use of their images on Google Images “without the need to entirely prohibit their use”. The source described Google’s activity as a “systematic disrespect of copyright as an anti-competitive weapon”.

The competition case against the search monster has rumbled on for more than five years, but took on more impetus this year when the new EU Competition Chief Margrethe Vestager sent an official charge sheet to the Chocolate Factory in April.

Google was charged with favouring its own comparison shopping services in search. But the original complaints also included allegations of content scraping – that’s copying to you and me – exclusivity in its agreements with advertising partners, and undue restrictions on advertisers’ ability to use competing advertising platforms.

However, although Google is accused of both content scraping and preferring its own services in search, the issue of image search had not previously been addressed.

Google is preparing its response to a wide array of allegations and concerns raised by the Commish, and had nothing more to add when contacted by The Register. It was recently given an extension until 31 August to respond to the charge sheet sent in April.

Getty Images was formally registered as an “interested third party” in the investigation in June, after it complained that changes to Google’s image search interface in 2013 saw large-format, high-resolution imagery scraped from third parties.

“Google has succeeded in driving additional traffic to itself and created a captive environment that ensures that traffic on Google almost never diverts to the source sites of the images,” Getty said.

With Google holding around 90 per cent of the image search market in the EU, Getty argues that Google Images’ display of photos from sites and publishers, instead of original licensed content, is also bad for consumers.

CEPIC (Centre of the Picture Industry) has also received an RFI – more than 20 months after it lodged its complaint in November 2013. Executive Director Sylvie Fodor said its position remains the same.

“Our view is that the best copyright laws are ineffective on an anti-competitive market as there is no level playing field between stakeholders. Google Images benefits from the visual content for free; however, since introduction of the latest Google Images features, traffic on the image source websites has dropped,” she said. ®

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