Google’s offer to settle an antitrust investigation with the European Union by labeling its own services more clearly in Web search results is a “non-starter” for a group of competitors such as Microsoft and Foundem.
The companies and at least 10 other rivals that filed complaints with the EU will give feedback on the remedies submitted by Google to settle the almost 3-year-old investigation.
Google, operator of the world’s largest Internet search engine, told the Brussels-based EU it would create more distinction in searches between its own services and competitors, a person familiar with the negotiations said last week.
It also proposed to offer links to rival search engines, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the details aren’t public.
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“If what has been proposed is labeling or a modified form of labeling, frankly that’s a non-starter,” said David Wood, a lawyer for industry group ICOMP, which includes Microsoft. “We haven’t seen the proposals, and the commission hasn’t explained them to us. We’re in the dark.”
EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia has urged Google to address four points, including allegations that the company promotes its own specialist search services, copies rivals’ travel and restaurant reviews, and has agreements with websites and software developers that stifle competition in the advertising industry.
Even with a negative market test, “the commission can go ahead, no matter what,” said Andreas Stargard, a competition lawyer in Brussels.
Still, the commission “has to keep in mind the potential of an appeal ultimately at the European court,” said Stargard. “It cannot be arbitrary in its rejection of concerns.”
The EU case is another chance for Google competitors and complainants to get the changes they’re seeking.
The U.S. in January closed a 20-month investigation into whether Google unfairly promoted its own services in search results over competing websites.
The Federal Trade Commission concluded Google was motivated more by wanting to improve its search results and the user’s experience than by a desire to stifle competition.
Foundem, a U.K. shopping-comparison website, sued Google in London in June to get damages for revenue lost as a result of the search engine owner’s “anti- competitive conduct,” according to court documents.
The EU started the formal investigation in November 2010 of claims that Google discriminates against other services in its search results and stops some websites from accepting competitors’ adverts.
While Microsoft and partner Yahoo have about a quarter of the U.S. Web-search market, Google has almost 95 percent of the traffic in Europe, Microsoft said in 2011.
Thomas Vinje, a lawyer for the FairSearch Coalition, another group of technology companies including Microsoft, Expedia and Nokia, said Google displays links to its own search services differently from links to competitors, resulting in preferential treatment in comparison to similar services.
“Google should subject its own products and services to the same policy it uses for others,” Vinje said in an emailed statement yesterday.
An EU settlement avoids any decision on whether a company broke antitrust rules. Companies can be fined as much as 10 percent of their annual revenue if they break the terms of a legally binding settlement.
Almunia first told Google last May he wanted to settle the investigation.