Europe's competition watchdog weighs up Google antitrust ruling

With Google tabling new concessions to stave off antitrust proceedings, Europe's competition head says he will make a decision within weeks.
Written by Toby Wolpe, Contributor

EU competition chief Joaquín Almunia says he'll rule in the next few weeks whether to settle with Google over accusations of stifling European competition or launch legal proceedings.

In a speech on Thursday to the International Bar Association in Florence, Almunia conceded that many startups have benefited from Google's role as one of the main entry points to the internet.

"At the same time, it is my responsibility to ensure that Google does not abuse this gatekeeper role in the EU to push its own services against those of competitors who may be just as innovative," Almunia said. "Time is of the essence, and in the coming weeks I will take a decision."

Almunia is vice president of the European Commission responsible for competition policy. He said the Commission wants to find effective solutions to its concerns about Google's operations to preserve competition in the coming years between services.

"Whether we will ultimately achieve this through a commitment process is still open at this point," he said.

New antitrust concessions

On Monday, Google submitted new concessions to the commission to avoid an antitrust fine of up to $5bn.

Earlier this year, the commission warned Google it could face a partial block of its business in Europe if it failed to resolve its alleged anticompetitive practices.

Almunia said two courses of action lie open to him. The first is to use Article 9 of the EU antitrust rules, which would transform Google's new proposals into legally binding commitments.

The alternative is to apply Article 7 and move towards possible sanctions against Google. According to an EC spokesman, Article 7 provides for decisions that prohibit anticompetitive practices and which may also impose sanctions.

But before that, the commission has to produce a statement of objections to which the company has an opportunity to reply. The company can also request a hearing.

"In short, this is a phase where the commission presents what its objections are before it takes any decision and the company can exercise its rights of defence before any final decision is taken," the spokesman said.

Making Google commitments legally binding

By contrast, the commission can reach a kind of settlement under Article 9, by which the company presents commitments that the commission makes legally binding for a given period without finding an infringement of competition rules.

"This is a possibility that we are currently exploring with Google. They had made some proposals that we had submitted to a market test, which means we asked market players and interested parties for feedback," the EU spokesman said.

"Following this market test, we concluded that the proposals were not sufficient and we asked Google to improve these proposals and now we are analysing these new proposals.

"We now have to decide whether to continue on this path to a possible agreement, which would mean a decision based on Article 9, or we consider that the proposals are not enough and we revert to proceedings under Article 7."

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