August 7, 2020

E.U. Regulators Move Forward on Google Settlement

The decision by the European Commission to gather reaction to Google’s proposal is intended to address complaints from competitors concerned that Google favors its own results over theirs. By announcing Thursday the start of market testing of the planned changes, the commission allows others in the industry to weigh in.

The commission said it needed to intervene because “Google has had a strong position in Web search in most European countries for a number of years now” and because it “does not seem likely that another Web search service will replace it as European users’ Web search service of choice.”

The details of the agreement were reported earlier this month, as Google for the first time agreed to the legally binding changes to its search results after a two-year antitrust investigation by European regulators, likely allowing the company to avoid fines and a formal finding of wrongdoing.

The market testing of the changes would last for one month and a final settlement could be agreed upon after the summer, according to Antoine Colombani, a spokesman for the E.U. competition commissioner, Joaquín Almunia.

The agreement would be legally binding for five years, and a third party would ensure compliance. If the deal is accepted, Google would avoid a fine and a finding of wrongdoing. But it could face a fine of as much as 10 percent of its global annual sales if it failed to keep its promises. Google did not issue any immediate comment.

The deal would allow Google to escape the type of lengthy and expensive antitrust battles that Microsoft faced in Europe over its media player and server software.

The European Commission has taken a tougher line with Google on the issue of how it runs its search rankings than has the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. In January, the U.S. commission decided, after a 19-month inquiry, that Google had not broken antitrust laws.

About 86 percent of all online searches in Europe are conducted using Google, according to the Web analyst comScore. In the United States, it has about two-thirds of the market.

One of the centerpieces of Google’s offer is to show links from competitors who offer specialized search services. In cases where Google sells advertising next to results for particular vertical markets like restaurants and hotels, Google would provide a menu of at least three options for non-Google search services.

That plan is analogous to a system Microsoft agreed to in 2009, offering users of newly purchased computers in Europe a ballot screen enabling them to download other Web-browser software from the Internet and to turn off Microsoft’s browser, Internet Explorer. Last month, the commission fined Microsoft $732 million for lapses in adhering to that settlement.

Google would also label results pointing to its own services — like YouTube — as Google properties and separate them from general search results with a box. The boxes would be mandatory, and probably heavily outlined, in cases where Google makes money from advertising that appears with the search results.

Google also would mark results from its own services like weather or news where it does not collect money from advertising. Those frames could be boxes with a lighter outline.

In areas in which all search results are paid ads, like shopping, Google will auction links to rivals.

Google is pledging to restrict the way it integrates content from other sites and media into its own products. It would need “to offer all specialized 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,” the commission said in its statement.

Claire Cain Miller contributed reporting.

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