By Foo Yun Chee
BRUSSELS, April 11 Google has formally
submitted a package of concessions to European Union competition
regulators in a strong signal that the world's No. 1 search
engine may be able to settle a two-year antitrust investigation
without a fine.
Google first offered proposals at the end of January
following a spate of complaints from rivals such as Microsoft
that triggered the European Commission's investigation
in November 2010.
But the company, which has a market share of over 80 percent
in Europe's Internet search market according to research firm
comScore, has now made a formal offer after fine-tuning its
proposals following discussions with the EU antitrust authority.
"In the last few weeks, the Commission completed its
preliminary assessment formally setting out its concerns. On
this basis, Google then made a formal submission of commitments
to the Commission," said Antoine Colombani, the Commission's
spokesman on competition policy.
"We are now preparing the launch of a market test to seek
feedback from market players, including complainants, on these
commitment proposals," he said, declining to provide details.
EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia, speaking in
Washington, said on Thursday that whatever agreement is reached
will be legally binding.
"I am trying to reach a decision ... that will include
legally binding commitments based on the Google proposal," he
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission wrapped up a similar probe
in early January by concluding that Google did not manipulate
It also extracted pledges that Google would end the practice
of "scraping" content from other websites for its products and
allow advertisers to export analytical data, but did not take
formal, legal action to ensure those pledges would be met - a
decision that angered Google's critics.
Almunia brushed aside questions about whether the FTC's
conclusions would make it more difficult for his investigators
to make a different finding. "This is not creating any
difficulty for our investigation," he said.
He also said that there had been no decision made on whether
to investigate complaints by Google critics such as Microsoft
that Google was guilty of predatory pricing in offering its
Android mobile operating system for free.
"We have not yet decided if a formal investigation will be
launched or not," Almunia said.
LABELS MAY BE THE ANSWER
People familiar with the matter have previously told Reuters
that Google has offered to label its own services in search
results to differentiate them from rival services, and also to
impose fewer restrictions on advertisers.
Google spokesman Al Verney said the company continues to
work cooperatively with the Commission. A settlement with the
regulator would stave off a fine that could reach $5 billion, or
10 percent of its 2012 revenues.
The Commission said Google may have violated antitrust rules
by pushing its own services over those of rivals, copying travel
and restaurant reviews from competing sites without permission
and restricting advertisers from moving to competing services.
The market test is critical to determine whether regulators
accept Google's concessions or demand more.
In an indication of the pitfalls still ahead for Google,
online German mapping service and Google complainant Hotmaps
said the concessions must address rivals' concerns.
"hot-map.com will actively partake in the market testing of
Google's concessions and only accept a settlement if competition
is fully restored in a future-proof manner," said Michael Weber,
the company's chief executive.
Frustrated by the slow pace of the Commission's
investigation, rivals such as British price comparison site
Foundem, U.S. online sites Expedia and TripAdvisor, and
German publishers have already urged tougher action.
British online mapping company Streetmap, another Google
complainant in the EU investigation, took its case to the
British court on Thursday, citing damage incurred as a result of