Exclusive: EU moves early on Google antitrust probe

BRUSSELS Wed Jan 18, 2012 8:54am EST

A Google carpet is seen at the entrance of the new headquarters of Google France before its official inauguration in Paris December 6, 2011.   REUTERS/Jacques Brinon/Pool

A Google carpet is seen at the entrance of the new headquarters of Google France before its official inauguration in Paris December 6, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Jacques Brinon/Pool

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European regulators will decide around the end of March whether to file a formal complaint against Google for misuse of its market position, potentially bringing the internet company's squabble with competitors to a head much sooner than expected.

"I will receive comments from the case team towards the end of the first quarter. I do not expect anything sooner. Let us see," EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia told Reuters at the sidelines of an industry conference late on Tuesday.

Until this point officials had been playing down expectations of an early conclusion to the informal investigation stage, although there still could be a long way to go. Antitrust investigations typically take several years.

The Commission opened an investigation into Google in November 2010 after rivals including Microsoft accused the internet search company of abusing its dominant position in the market for web search services.

In all there are 10 complainants, ranging from British price comparison site Foundem and German association of business listings VfT to French online daily deals company Deal du Jour and French search engine 1plusV have formally complained to the Commission.

Last month, the Spanish Association of Daily Newspaper Publishers (AEDE) became the latest.

U.S. regulators are also investigating Google's business practices. A source told Reuters that the probe has expanded to include the company's new social networking tool Google+.

The Commission, which can fine companies up to 10 percent of their global turnover, has penalized companies such as Microsoft and Intel billions of euros for breaching EU antitrust rules.

(Editing by Sebastian Moffett and Andrew Callus)

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