Google's long-awaited settlement with the European Union to put a 3-year-old antitrust case behind the company appears to be in its final stages, according to a speech given to the European Parliament Oct. 1 in Brussels by the EU's Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia.
A settlement could finally be reached by both sides within the next few weeks, Almunia said, after several previous settlement proposals from Google did not go far enough.
"I sought comments on a first proposal by Google through a market test launched in April of this year," Almunia said in his remarks. "The feedback received from the market test was very negative. Therefore, I asked Google on 9 July to improve significantly its proposals."
Real progress came recently, according to Almunia, when Google again brought new proposals to the table in an effort to reach a binding settlement. "Google has now improved the commitments it has offered," he said. "We have negotiated improvements until yesterday."
Almunia said he couldn't comment on the exact nature and specifics of the latest Google proposals, but he said they relate to issues including how Google search will from now on handle "queries entered in Google in whatever form—whether they are typed or spoken—and irrespective of the entry point or the device." A key part of the new Google proposals relates to concerns about how Google search handles vertical searches, which was the point that received the strongest critical comments during the market test, he said.
"Although I cannot describe the details, I can tell you that the new proposal more appropriately addresses the need for any commitments to be able to cover future developments," Almunia said.
One complaint from rivals in the antitrust investigation has been that Google's earlier proposals to highlight the links of competitors in searches failed to be visible enough to make them stand out for users, he said. That seems to be adequately resolved under the company's latest settlement offer.
"In my opinion, the new proposal makes these links significantly more visible," Almunia told the members of Parliament. "A larger space of the Google search results page is dedicated to them. Rivals have the possibility to display their logo next to the link, and there will be a dynamic text associated to each rival link to better inform the user of its content."
As part of a settlement, an independent monitoring trustee would be put in place to ensure that Google will fulfill its commitments to the proposals once they are agreed upon. The EU will also now seek feedback from Google's competitors and related complainants about the new proposals. "We know the general positions of the complainants and other stakeholders," said Almunia. "What we need now is to receive concrete technical elements on the effectiveness of the proposed package in order to conclude whether this new proposal is satisfactory from a competition point of view."
If those steps continue to be satisfactory, a formal decision on the matter could come by next spring, he said. If a settlement falls through, that would mean the antitrust case could go on to hearings and deeper proceedings.
"We have reached a key moment in this case," Almunia said. "Following the first market test, I had serious doubts whether it was possible to continue the route towards a Commitment decision. I expressed my opinion to Google and in public. Now, with the significant improvements on the table, I think we have the possibility to work again and seek to find an effective solution based on a decision under Article 9 of the Antitrust Regulation."
Making the settlement work is the best option for all sides, he told the group. "European users want undistorted competition and choice in online search and search advertising. They want it now and, if possible, deserve it now, and not after many years of litigation."