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European Union Fines Google $2.7 Billion

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Google says it will appeal a $2.7 billion fine. The European Union imposed that penalty, saying Google slanted the results in searches for people who search for products online. They were more likely to see Google's own products and services promoted first.

Adrianne Jeffries is senior editor covering technology for the digital publication The Outline. She's on the line from New York. Good morning.

ADRIANNE JEFFRIES: Hi. How are you?

INSKEEP: I'm OK, thanks. Does anybody dispute the basic facts that Google did in fact slant the search results?

JEFFRIES: So nobody disputes the basic facts. It's pretty obvious if you search on Google for a product, you will see Google's shopping results appear kind of either at the top or on the right sidebar sort of in the place where advertisements appear. And it says sponsored because all of Google's shopping results are paid...

INSKEEP: OK.

JEFFRIES: ...which is part of the issue.

INSKEEP: All right.

JEFFRIES: But the fact that is in dispute is whether that service is something Google did in order to help itself or to help its customers. Google says this is what customers want. They want to be able to click right through to a product. And the EU's Commission for Competition says, no, Google took its dominance in one market, which is search, and used it to give itself a leg up in another market, which is comparison shopping.

INSKEEP: You're saying that Google just happened to make the independent judgment that their offerings happen to be more efficient and better for customers than other offerings might happen to be.

JEFFRIES: Well, it's a little more complicated than that. It's more like - Google when it started produced a list of links when you searched for something.

INSKEEP: Sure.

JEFFRIES: It was a reference tool. Increasingly Google is trying to display the direct answer to a query when you search for something. So you search for the name of a well-known person, and it will pop up with a photo and a bio...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

JEFFRIES: ...In addition to the list of links. And it's doing that for lots of different things. It'll do that for locations, for restaurants. And products is one of the things it's doing that for as well. So if you search for a product and you look at Google's shopping results, it has a photo. It has a link directly through to buy the product. And Google is saying that consumers like this, that its internal data shows that people, when they search, enjoy this result and click through to - click through to it as opposed to Google surfacing results from other places. Like, in this case, it was European comparison shopping sites...

INSKEEP: So just...

JEFFRIES: ...which maybe are formatted very similar.

INSKEEP: Just very briefly, some people listening to this might be a little baffled that Google would be under pressure from governments at all for this because they're a private company. They're not formally a public service. Why would they be regulated as if they're supposed to be an impartial conveyer of information?

JEFFRIES: Right, definitely. Well, I think there's a sharp divide in public attitude between Americans and Europeans. In the U.S., I think attitude is a lot more sympathetic toward Google. You know, Google built a better mousetrap, and it's taking advantage of that. And that seems fair. But Europe has become more restrictive for companies like Google and Facebook. There are stricter hate-speech laws. There are stricter privacy laws. There are - you know, there's the right to be forgotten, the right to get your name out of Google search results. So the general attitude over there is more pro-consumer, more skeptical of the power that these companies are accruing.

INSKEEP: Vive de la France.

JEFFRIES: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Adrianne, thanks very much - really appreciate it.

JEFFRIES: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Adrianne Jeffries is senior editor covering technology for the digital publication The Outline. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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