The European Union has decided to ask Google’s competitors for candid feedback on a proposed Google settlement offer that aims to resolve a three-year-old antitrust case against Google in Europe.
The feedback will be collected to help the EU make its decision on whether to accept Google’s latest settlement offer, which came in late September.
The EU’s call for comments from Google’s competitors was reported Oct. 28 by Reuters.
“The Commission is sending today information requests,” Antoine Colombani, spokesman for competition policy at the European Commission, which is the regulatory arm of the EU, told Reuters in an email. “Information is sought, in particular, from complainants in the ongoing proceedings and from all those who responded to the initial market test of Google’s proposals which the Commission launched in April.”
In early October, the EU’s Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said publicly that the long-awaited settlement between Google and the EU appears to be in its final stages, according to an earlier eWEEK report. The first Google settlement proposals were rejected by the EU as not going far enough. Real progress came recently, according to Almunia, when Google again brought new proposals to the table in an effort to reach a binding settlement. At that time, Google did finally improve its settlement offer, which has led to promising negotiations between both sides since then.
At the time, Almunia didn’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.
One complaint from rivals in the antitrust investigation has been that Google’s earlier proposals would highlight the links of competitors in searches, but they complained that such a move wouldn’t be visible enough to make them stand out for users. That issue was apparently adequately resolved under the company’s latest settlement offer.
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 on.
At the time, the EU announced that it would seek feedback from Google’s competitors and related complainants about the new proposals, which is the step it is now taking.
In September, Google had submitted a fresh batch of concession proposals to the EU, but they failed to address the key concerns of the EU and the complainants in the case, which began in 2010.
Those proposals arrived two months after the EC had asked for more concession ideas from Google. The EC had been seeking Google’s ideas on how it could settle complaints that the company was blocking competitors’ results in Web searches in favor of its own results.
Google officials are under investigation in Europe regarding its search engine, which holds more than 60 percent of the search market, with Microsoft’s Bing being a distant second. Competitors have claimed that Google works its search algorithms to favor its own products and results over those of others, giving it an unfair advantage in search and Web advertising.
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A guilty verdict on such charges could mean a fine of up to 10 percent of Google’s annual revenue, which based on its 2012 annual results, could amount to about $5 billion.
In an earlier round in April, Google proposed several concessions that were apparently not seen as going far enough. The company had offered to improve how it labels ads in its search engine to make them clearer, and to change and improve how it displays links to competitors’ ads in search. Proposed under the deal was a plan for a monthlong “market test” of the arrangement to provide competitors, many of whom are behind the antitrust complaints against Google, some time to offer their input into whether the proposed changes are sufficient.
Another change under the April proposals was that Google would allow Websites to keep their content out of Google’s specialized search services, while ensuring that any opt-out does not unduly affect the ranking of those Websites in Google’s general Web search results.
Google had also sent an earlier batch of concession ideas to the EC in January, which was the second batch since an initial offering in July 2012, when Google executives sent a list of initial concessions to address the potential antitrust concerns. At that time, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt sent a letter to Almunia that outlined steps the massive Web company would be willing to take to resolve the EU’s concerns, including claims that it favors its own search results over those of others.
Google’s legal situation in Europe continues even as a similar antitrust probe in the United States was resolved in Google’s favor in January 2013. Instead of a major antitrust prosecution in the United States, Google entered into a voluntary agreement with the Federal Trade Commission to change some of its business practices to resolve the complaints of some competitors about Google’s practices. In the FTC case, key competitor Microsoft had led a fight with other technology companies to argue for strong FTC actions against Google to punish it for what they believed were unfair business practices.