The Big Google Antitrust Probe May Be Nearing End
A few weeks ago, we learned that Google had given the European Commission a new proposal to potentially resolve a lengthy antitrust probe after failing to reach a resolution with an earlier proposal.
The probe has been going on for nearly three years, and appears to be close to over. European Commission Vice President Joaquin Almunia gave a speech today to provide an update on where it stands. He says the commission has been negotiating with Google up until yesterday, and says Google has “improved” the commitments it has offered since its initial proposals.
Almunia would not go into detail about what the new commitments entail, but said they “more appropriately” address the need for any commitments to be able to cover future developments.”
“Therefore, the new proposal relates to queries entered in Google in whatever form – whether they are typed or spoken – and irrespective of the entry point or the device,” he said. “One of the most significant improvements relates to the vertical search concern, which was the point that received the strongest critical comments during the market test.”
According to Almunia, the new approach would make link to competitors in vertical search “significantly more visible” with a “larger space of the Google search result page” dedicated to them, and with rival logos appearing next to the links, where dynamic text would also be displayed.
“Market test respondents also contested the organization of the proposed auction to determine the rival links that would be displayed on Google’s search results page for the most commercial categories of specialised search services,” Almunia said. “The new proposal foresees an auction mechanism which includes the option to bid for each specific query. This is important to also ensure that smaller specialized search operators can be displayed.”
He said Google has “improved the granularity” of the opt-out feature that is offered to third-party sites (initially created to lay to rest another concern from those who don’t want Google piggybacking off their content). A new measure, Almunia said, ensures that Google can’t retaliate against sites that make use of the opt-out feature.
With regard to the third concern, Google has committed to no longer include in its agreements with publishers any provisions or impose any unwritten obligations that would require publishers to source their requirements for online search advertisements exclusively from Google in relation to queries from EEA users. The new proposal improves the safeguards against possible circumventions.
As regards the fourth concern, Google has offered to cease to impose any written or unwritten obligations that will prevent advertisers from porting and managing search advertising campaigns across Google’s services and competing services. The new proposal again provides stronger guarantees against circumvention.
In addition to all of this, a third party will monitor Google’s practices with regards to these commitments, and will provide assistance to the Commission.
Almunia made sure to note that Google is still involved with other investigations the commission is engaging in (one having to do with Motorola patents and another looking into Android).
You can read Almunia’s entire speech here.
Now, the commission will work with Google to get all the necessary paperwork drafted, and will once again, allow complainants to offer feedback on the latest proposals. If everything proves satisfactory, as seen by the comission, a formal decision will be released next Spring. Otherwise, they’ll have to send a Statement of Objections to Google in the coming months, to which Google could respond, and the process will continue to be even more drawn out.
Obviously Google is subject to fines if it doesn’t comply with its commitments.
So what do the complainants think? Well, they’re still waiting to see all the details. We received a statement from the biggest complainant, the FairSearch Coalition:
“Until we have seen the details of Google’s proposed remedies, it would be irresponsible to comment on their content and potential for correcting the anti-competitive behaviour identified by the European Commission in May 2012.
“However, for FairSearch Europe it is essential that the remedies install the principle of non-discrimination so that Google applies the same rules to its own services as it does to others when it returns and displays search results.
“FairSearch Europe also looks forward to a deep and broad market test among complainants and key stakeholders as the only way to test the effectiveness of the proposed remedies to restore competition in the online search market.”
This thing may be close to wrapping up. Almunia’s tone seems optimistic, but ultimately, it’s going to come down to whether Google’s rivals are able to persuade the commission that the commitments still don’t go far enough.
Image: European Commission Vice President Joaquin Almunia (nuevaeconomiaforum via YouTube)