Do Google’s Search Proposals Go Far Enough?

    April 30, 2013
    Chris Crum

The EU has finally come out with a public document discussing Google’s proposal to end a lengthy antitrust investigation, and addressing the previously reported “market test,” which will give competitors and all those concerned a chance to offer feedback.

Should Google be required to change its search results? Let us know what you think in the comments.

The Commission is seeking feedback on the commitments Google has offered to address concerns.

On why it feels the need to intervene, the Commission says, “In high-tech markets in particular, network effects may lead to entrenched market positions. Google has had a strong position in web search in most European countries for a number of years now. It does not seem likely that another web search service will replace it as European users’ web search service of choice.”

“In this context, it is important for the Commission to intervene in order to ensure that Google’s prominent market position in web search does not affect the possibility for other competitors to innovate in neighbouring markets, including in the long-term,” it adds.

The Commission views Google as dominant in search and search advertising, and says it is abusing its dominant position in four areas: specialized search, content usage, exclusivity agreements with publishers for the provision of online search advertising on their sites, and contractual restrictions on the portability and management of online search advertising campaigns across AdWords and competing platforms.

Google has, of course, settled similar concerns here in the U.S. with the Federal Trade Commission, where it agreed to let sites remove content from specialized search results pages while allowing them to keep results in regular Google results (they recently released a tool for this), and to enable advertisers to “mix and copy ad campaign data” within third-party services that use the AdWords API.

Some competitors felt that the settlement did not go far enough. The proposal in Europe goes further. Here is the list of Google’s proposals verbatim (per the EU’s announcement):

Google offers for a period of 5 years to:

(i) – label promoted links to its own specialised search services so that users can distinguish them from natural web search results,

– clearly separate these promoted links from other web search results by clear graphical features (such as a frame), and

– display links to three rival specialised search services close to its own services, in a place that is clearly visible to users,

(ii) – offer all websites the option to opt-out from the use of all their content in Google’s specialised search services, while ensuring that any opt-out does not unduly affect the ranking of those web sites in Google’s general web search results,

– offer all specialised search web sites that focus on product search or local search the option to mark certain categories of information in such a way that such information is not indexed or used by Google,

– provide newspaper publishers with a mechanism allowing them to control on a web page per web page basis the display of their content in Google News,

(iii) no longer include in its agreements with publishers any written or unwritten obligations that would require them to source online search advertisements exclusively from Google, and

(iv) no longer impose obligations that would prevent advertisers from managing search advertising campaigns across competing advertising platforms.

A third party would be required to monitor Google’s implementation of its commitments.

Already, despite the increased responsibilities on Google’s part, competitors don’t think the proposals go far enough this time either.

Interestingly, FairSearch, the group of Google competitors, which has been most vocal about its opposition to Google’s practices since its incarnation when Google announced its intent to acquire ITA software three years ago, issued a statement on the market test before the EU’s document came out.

“The most important remedy to Google’s abuse of dominance is to require the search monopoly, which controls 94 percent of the market in Europe, to subject its own products and services to the same policy it uses to rank and display all other Websites,” the group said. “Since it has taken a year to extract a final proposal from Google, FairSearch believes the ‘market test’ should last three months to ensure that interested parties have enough time to carefully provide the European Commission with their expertise on the effectiveness of Google’s proposal. As we have said, we will comment on Google’s proposed remedies after the Commission shares them.”

FairSearch intends to study the “effects” of Google’s proposal, and has implied that it will have more suggestions for how to make things better.

Separately, FairSearch recently filed a complaint with the EU saying that Google is using its Android operating system to give it an additional unfair advantage in search. This is not addressed in Google’s current proposals, but the EU isn’t ignoring it. Here’s what the commission had to say about “other Google-related allegations”:

This process covers the four competition concerns that have been investigated as a matter of priority. The Commission is, however, thoroughly examining all other allegations brought to its attention by different market players with a view to deciding whether or not a further investigation of those issues is warranted. Google’s Android related business practices are part of those issues.

To be continued…

All those concerned with Google’s current proposals have a month to submit their feedback to the EU.

Do Google’s proposals go far enough? Should Google even be required to do all of what it has proposed? Will this help competitors significantly? Will it hurt Google significantly? We want to hear your thoughts in the comments.