Google Antitrust Investigation: Rumours Of Imminent Settlement Met With Scepticism

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Recent rumours that interner giant Google is set to escape an ongoing European antitrust investigation without its latest proposals being market-tested have been met with much scepticism

LONDON, United Kingdom — Internet giant Google may be close to striking a deal with the European Commission to put an end to an antitrust investigation of nearly four years, according to rumours documented in a recent Reuters article.

The article, published Wednesday, cites a senior European Union official telling Reuters: "Google and the European Commission are close to a deal and a decision is expected in the next few days or in a couple of weeks at the latest."

It implied that Google had submitted a third proposal designed to allay ongoing concerns by the European regulator that the internet giant behaves anti-competitively when it comes to ranking and displaying its own products on its search results pages. Google has been widely declared guilty of giving its own products an unfair competitive advantage by giving them preferential treatment and prominent display space when returning search results to users – thereby squashing competition in many vertical markets, including online shopping, mapping, news and travel.

Two earlier sets of settlement proposals submitted by Google had been rejected by European authorities after seeking feedback from more than 100 European businesses and online stakeholders. By Reuters' account, the EU regulator may now intend to skip the feedback phase and jump straight to accepting the latest proposals from Google – and thereby letting Google off the hook without any further vetting of the proposal's merits.

"Without actual testing of the likely effects of Google's latest proposal, any assessment of it would just be speculative," U.S.-based lobby group, which counts online travel sites Expedia and TripAdvisor amongst its members, stated in a blog post.

Market commentators said that any proposal which effectively addresses the anti-competitive concerns by putting an end to Google's abusive market practices would need to be substantially different from the previous, rejected, submissions. In that case, any such proposal would need to be market-tested by the regulator to assess its true effectiveness.

John Simpson, Privacy Project Director of Consumer Watchdog, wrote in an open letter to EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia: "Frankly, given the results of the two earlier market tests, we cannot understand how the third proposal could be anything other than a substantial change from the earlier woefully insufficient remedies proffered by Google if it is to be accepted by you."

"In other words, for the third proposal to be remotely viable, it must be a substantial change. If it is such a significant change, then – by your own procedures – you must market test it," Simpson demanded, adding that Consumer Watchdog's interest in the case was only motivated by its concerns for the welfare of consumers.

Another group, the Initiative for a Competitive Online Marketplace (ICOMP), questioned the rumoured omission of a market consultation. In a blog post, it wrote: "Given the value provided by third party comments in evaluating the first two packages, it seems strange that this one wouldn't be put up for comments, which begs the question – what is Google hiding?"

The European regulator's sudden rush towards a quick settlement with Google may be motivated by Commissioner Almunia leaving his office later this year, according to analyst speculation, citing that Mr Almunia may want to close the case before his departure.

A flawed outcome, however, may have irreparable consequences for online providers of the future; they can only hope that the recent rumours won't come true.

Note to readers:
One News Page has suffered, and continues to suffer significant harm to its business as a direct result of Google's anti-competitive business practices. One News Page responded to the European Commission's request for information on Google's previous proposals – the full response can be found here. One News Page, of which the author of this article is a director, is a council member of ICOMP. It also spearheads the "Have I been penalised..?" campaign calling for greater transparency in search penalties.

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