August 7, 2020

Europe Nears Antitrust Deal With Google Over Web Searches

The announcement by the European Commission that it had begun what is called market testing was intended to determine whether the remedies address complaints that Google favors its own products in search results.

The step is also a sign that Google, having already avoided antitrust charges in the United States, has offered concessions that are acceptable to the commission, thus allowing it to dodge a guilty verdict and a huge fine in the case.

“Now we have concrete proposals on the table which meet the necessary standards for us to submit to the public and to seek feedback on,” said Antoine Colombani, a spokesman for the E.U. competition commissioner, Joaquín Almunia.

The market testing would last for one month and a final settlement — which both sides have been working toward since shortly after the formal start of the case in November 2010 — could be agreed upon after the summer “in a best case scenario,” Mr. Colombani said.

Google still could face a fine of as much as 10 percent of its global annual sales, which were nearly $50 billion last year, if it fails to keep its promises. But 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.

Even before it reached a deal with the commission, Google came under pressure to make further concessions. A prominent consumer group and groups with links to Microsoft condemned Google for failing to make sufficient changes, and some companies asked for a longer period of market testing.

There were also complaints that the new rules would only apply to Google’s national domains because Google users in Europe can also use the company’s global Web site that ends in .com rather than, say, .fr for France.

Google is “serving ads to European customers on the Web site, which is a strong indication that the remedies should apply to that Web site as well,” said David H. Wood, the legal counsel for Icomp, an industry group backed by Microsoft. “Circumvention is just one click away.”

The .com site has a 7 percent market share in the European Economic Area, which comprises the 27 countries of the Union as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, and does not offer the same quality of service for European users, according to E.U. officials, who were referring to information that was supplied to them by Google.

Asked whether the current offer by Google was final, Al Verney, a spokesman for the company, said only that “we continue to work cooperatively with the commission.”

One of the centerpieces of Google’s offer to settle the case is to show links to the Web sites of competitors who offer specialized search services.

In cases where Google sells advertising next to results for specific industries like restaurants and hotels, Google would provide a menu of at least three options for non-Google search services.

The menu plan is analogous to a system Microsoft agreed to in 2009, offering users of its Windows software in Europe a ballot screen enabling them to download other Web browser software 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 use computer code to identify the most relevant rival services for a particular query. The code would then select three of those sites to be included in the menu.

Google would also label results pointing to its own services — like Google Maps, if they display local businesses — as Google properties and separate them from general search results with a box, though they would still appear in the normal list of results. The boxes would be mandatory, and probably heavily outlined, in cases where Google makes money from advertising that appears with the search results.

Claire Cain Miller contributed reporting from San Francisco.

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