In a settlement that has taken some 39 months to reach, Google and the European Union (EU) have apparently brokered a deal that will end an antitrust investigation that has saddled Google in Europe since November 2010.
The settlement, which still faces formal final approval by the EU and its regulatory arm, the European Commission (EC), includes concessions from Google on how it will display competitors' links through the Google search engine, according to a Feb. 5 report by Reuters.
The EU probe had been investigating Google's Internet search processes, which competitors including Microsoft, Expedia and British search services company Foundem, argued unfairly promoted Google's advertisers at the expense of competitors.
The pending agreement, according to Reuters, means that Google will change its display practices but not have to pay a fine that could have amounted to as much as $5 billion. The settlement agreement will remain in place for five years, the story reported.
Some of Google's competitors, however, loudly protested one major condition of the settlement—that the deal would be accepted without being reviewed by competitors who had been protesting the company's alleged behavior, Reuters reported.
"Without a third-party review, [EC Vice President Joaquin] Almunia risks having the wool pulled over his eyes by Google," David Wood of the lobby group ICOMP, told Reuters. Microsoft and four other Google complainants are members of the lobbying group.
In an email response to an inquiry from eWEEK, Kent Walker, Google's general counsel, said that the company "will be making significant changes to the way Google operates in Europe. We have been working with the European Commission to address issues they raised and look forward to resolving this matter."
Under the terms of the apparent settlement with the EU, Google will more clearly identify its own paid ad content from its own customers when displaying search content to users, and will display them with unique identifications and separate placement to make their presence clearer to users.
That will be done to address concerns from competitors that Google promoted its own ads more strongly than those from other online ad companies, according to the EU proposal. "Within its Web search results, Google displays its own specialized search services more favorably than competing services," the EU stated. "In many instances, relevant competing services are as a consequence more difficult for the user to find. Users are not informed of this favorable treatment of Google's own services."
To help make the sources of such content easier by users, Google will now have to "display prominent links to three rival specialized search services in a format which is visually comparable to that of links to its own services," the EU stated. "For instance, if the Google links have images, the rival links will have images as well, including on mobile devices."
Under the settlement, Google will also have to address other concerns about its past search behavior by allowing third parties to opt out from the use of their content in Google's specialized search services without impacting their rankings in Google's general search results, according to the EU. "A general opt-out will be open to all Websites, on a subdomain-by-subdomain basis. A more specific opt-out with finer granularity and more control over content will be accessible to news publishers only, for the control of the use of their content in Google News."