Google, EU approach final deal on antitrust probe after Google proposes fresh search changes

Google's chances of avoiding European sanctions over its search practices are looking better.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Europe's long-running antitrust probe into Google's search practices could reach an end by mid-2014 after the European Commission's competition chief, Joaquín Almunia, welcomed proposed changes to the company's search practices.

Speaking in Brussels today, Almunia indicated that the likelihood of a settlement with Google over the three-year antitrust investigation had picked up after the company put forward a new set of measures designed to address the EC's concerns, which included "significant improvements" on earlier packages.

"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," Alumnia said.

However, a final decision on the proposals is still subject to feedback from industry stakeholders, who will be asked by the EC for their opinion on whether technical elements of it address competition concerns.

If all goes well, the commission could make a decision by next spring, according to Alumnia, otherwise it will be forced back into negotiations with Google.

Under an Article 9 decision, Google's proposals will be turned into legally binding commitments, meaning the company would, as Microsoft leaned earlier this year with its browser-choice error, face heavy fines for breaching them. 

The EC can also pursue another, tougher avenue under Article 7 which could ultimately involve sanctions against Google, including fines that could reach up to $5 billion. Such a path would only be taken when all other options had been exhausted apart from the Article 7 "cease and desist" order, Alumnia said.

While Google's new set of proposals has not been made public, Almunia said there were improvements in how Google says it would link to specialised search services that compete with elements of its own search products.

"In my opinion, the new proposal makes these links significantly more visible. A larger space of the Google search result page is dedicated to them," Alumnia said. "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."

The commissioner also noted improvements to Google's auction process, which now permits companies to bid for each specific search query.

Other noted improvements include greater granularity for third-party content producers to opt out of Google's search and better guarantees that Google will not to penalise those that do so.

The new proposals also include a commitment from Google not to impose unwritten obligations in contracts with publishers to only source search ads from Google for queries from users in Europe. Google has also committed to not preventing advertising from shifting their Google ad campaigns to competing services.

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