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Google’s 2.4 billion-euro ($2.6 billion) fine is “a small amount of cash” to the search-engine giant, according to a European Union judge, who also raised the prospect of increasing the antitrust penalty that the company is seeking to overturn.
Colm Mac Eochaidh’s persistent questioning of Google’s representatives during the third day of a hearing at the EU’s General Court caused lawyers to scramble through papers seeking a response when he told them the tribunal had the right to increase the 2017 fine, then the highest the EU had ever levied for antitrust abuse. The Irish judge is one of five justices who will rule in the coming months on whether Google unfairly discriminated against smaller shopping rivals.
“Did that level of fine deter you from repeating the behavior?” Mac Eochaidh asked before wondering how “might it be justified to increase or alter the fine.” He suggested that the penalty meant little to Google since it was only “a small amount of your cash in hand, so not actually that eye-catching in the light of day.”
Google hadn’t bargained for a potentially bigger fine when it attacked the EU’s antitrust findings during the hearing. Officials from the U.S. Department of Justice, EU investigators and company executives were in the Luxembourg court to hear Google argue that regulators had overreached and made crucial errors. The case is the first of three lawsuits against EU antitrust decisions and a loss for the EU could halt its tough enforcement of big tech firms.
When Google’s attorney Christopher Thomas said there could be no increase in the fine because EU regulators hadn’t asked for one, Mac Eochaidh immediately contradicted him. The EU’s second highest-court has “unlimited jurisdiction” to increase the fine even if the issue hasn’t been explored, he said.
The senior judge on the panel, Stephane Gervasoni, stopped his Irish colleague, asking if his questioning was theoretical or if there were actual reasons to increase the fine. It’s rare for one judge to question another. Judges appeared to move away from the possibility of a higher penalty in the case, stressing that any such move would need additional legal analysis and the opportunity for Google to give its views.
It isn’t the first time Mac Eochaidh has needled Google during the three days of hearings on the appeal. On Thursday, he said it was “perfectly apparent” that the company had promoted its own services and demoted others -- a key point for the EU side.
On Friday, Mac Eochaidh urged Google’s lawyer to imagine he had savings of 120 euros in his back pocket but was fined 2.4 euros for dropping some litter.
“Would you miss the 2.4 euros?” the judge asked.
(Updates with judge’s questioning in third paragraph)
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