Google Offers to Change Search Page to Settle EU Probe
By Stephanie Bodoni – Apr 25, 2013 6:56 AM ET
Google Inc. (GOOG) (GOOG) offered to change the way it operates its search page by “clearly” distinguishing its own search services from those of rivals for five years in a bid to settle an antitrust investigation by the European Union.
The owner of the world’s largest search engine offered to label promoted Google-branded search services and show links “to three rival specialized search services close to its own” ones as part of a series of commitments to end the almost three-year-old probe, according to an e-mailed statement by the EU today.
The commission has said that Google is dominant in web search and search advertising in Europe and that the Mountain View, California-based company may be hampering competition. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia has sought a deal with Google to end the antitrust probe without imposing fines, while competitors such as Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) andTripAdvisor Inc. (TRIP) have pressured regulators to force Google to change its business practices. The European Commission has said that Google is dominant in web search and search advertising in Europe and that the Mountain View, California-based company may be hampering competition.
“We will need to carry out empirical analysis of the changes,” David Wood, a lawyer for Brussels-based industry group ICOMP, which includes Microsoft and Foundem, a U.K. shopping comparison website, said by e-mail. It’s “necessary for us to understand exactly how the planned changes will be implemented and, crucially, to see what they will look like.”
Rivals, users and companies in the same market will have a month to give feedback to the Brussels-based antitrust regulator on Google’s planned changes. Almunia has said a settlement may be clinched “after the summer vacations” if the company’s offer is deemed acceptable.
“We continue to work cooperatively with the European Commission,” Al Verney, a Brussels based spokesman for Google, said in an e-mail.
Google’s remedies seek to address 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.
Google offered to “clearly separate” promoted links from other web search results by “clear graphical features,” the commission said. The remedies would also allow specialized search websites “to mark certain categories of information in such a way that such information is not indexed or used by Google.”
“We have always said that Google should subject its own products to the same rules it uses to rank and display other websites,” said Thomas Vinje, a Brussels lawyer for the FairSearch Coalition, a group of technology companies including Microsoft, Expedia Inc. (EXPE) and Nokia Oyj. (NOK1V)
“Google has taken a year to develop the proposal released today. We think it’s only fair that outside experts have more than a month to help the commission ‘market test’ the long- lasting effects of Google’s proposal on consumers and innovation,” he said.
The commission said today it will study the feedback “very carefully” and “will in particular assess whether the commitments may need to be improved to adequately address the four competition concerns that have been identified.”
Google’s foes are seeking a tougher outcome from the EU probe after the U.S. closed a 20-month investigation into whether Google unfairly promoted its own services in search results. The Federal Trade Commission in January concluded that Google was motivated more by wanting to improve its search results than by a desire to stifle competition.
If the EU accepts Google’s offer, the remedies would become legally binding. Companies can be fined as much as 10 percent of their annual revenue if they break the terms of a legally binding settlement.
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