July 9, 2019 / 4:40 AM / 3 months ago

RPT-India's latest Google probe sparked by junior antitrust researchers

(Repeats with no changes to text)

* Google facing probe for allegedly abusing Android platform in India

* Case was filed by two antitrust researchers, one law student

* The researchers acted in personal capacity: government official

By Aditya Kalra

NEW DELHI, July 8 (Reuters) - Two junior Indian antitrust research associates and a law school student were behind a complaint that sparked a probe into Google's alleged anti-competitive practices in the country, in what has become another regulatory challenge for the U.S. firm.

The Competition Commission of India (CCI) ordered a full-blown investigation into Alphabet Inc's Google in April for alleged abuse of its Android platform to hurt rivals, but the complainants' names came to light only when the order was made public last week.

The case was filed by Umar Javeed and Sukarma Thapar, who work as research associates at the CCI, and Umar's brother Aaqib, a law school student who interned with the CCI briefly in 2018, their LinkedIn profiles showed. All three declined interview requests for this article.

Though it's unusual for CCI researchers to file cases with the watchdog, antitrust lawyers said, there is nothing wrong with it. They acted in their personal capacity, a senior government official said, adding that all are aged in their 20s.

"They deserve appreciation, they have done a commendable job," S. L. Bunker, a former senior member of the CCI, told Reuters on Monday. "The developments will be watched eagerly as the case involves many intricacies and its implications will be world over."

The CCI didn't respond to a request for comment.

A recent antitrust case in the country against Google involved a matchmaking firm backed by top lawyers. The U.S. company was fined $20 million in that case last year, though it is under appeal.

In the latest case, the three young informants relied on the European Commission's order from last year in which Google was fined $5 billion for forcing manufacturers to pre-install its apps on Android devices. Their complaint is against both Google LLC and the company's India unit.

The CCI's preliminary finding was that Google appeared to be dominant on the basis of the material brought forward by the informants, who were identified in the order as Android users.

Google didn't respond to an email seeking comment, but has previously said it would work with the CCI "to demonstrate how Android has led to more competition and innovation, not less".

The amount of any fine that could be imposed on Google if the CCI rules against it was not clear. Google's Indian unit posted revenue of more than $1.3 billion for the 2018 fiscal year, according to Indian media.

Umar has been working at the CCI since 2017 and obtained his law degree in 2014 from the University of Kashmir, while Aaqib is due to graduate from the Kashmir university this year. Thapar, who graduated from an Indian law school in 2015, joined the CCI last year, according to their LinkedIn profiles.

When one Indian antitrust lawyer asked Umar on LinkedIn whether it wasn't strange that CCI's research associates were filing cases at the watchdog, he replied: "I don't think so ... you can't tell a police officer to not report an illegal activity because of him being an officer." (Reporting by Aditya Kalra; Editing by Martin Howell and Muralikumar Anantharaman)

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