* Formal EU charges could lead to fine up to $5 bln
* Google in settlement talks with EU regulators to avert sanction
By Foo Yun Chee
BRUSSELS, March 21 (Reuters) - Rivals of Google on Thursday urged EU antitrust regulators to get tougher with the world’s top search engine and sanction it for allegedly abusing its market dominance.
The call for action by 11 online and media companies reflects the frustration of small competitors at the pace of a two-year long investigation by the European Commission into the Internet powerhouse.
The EU antitrust authority is now examining fresh proposals put forward by Google in January to end the investigation and avert a possible fine that could reach $5 billion or 10 percent of the company’s 2012 revenues.
Neither the Commission nor Google, which has a market share of over 80 percent in Europe, has provided details of the offer which came after rivals, including Microsoft, accused it of using its market dominance to block competitors.
EU regulators 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 companies which criticised Google included British price comparison site Foundem, U.S. online travel sites Expedia and Tripadvisor, two online mapping companies and two trade bodies representing German publishers.
“Google’s past behaviour suggests that it is unlikely to volunteer effective, future-proof remedies without being formally charged with infringement,” the group wrote in a letter to EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia.
“Given this, and the fact that Google has exploited every delay to further entrench, extend, and escalate its anti-competitive activities, we urge the Commission to issue the statement of objections,” they said.
The statement of objections (SO) is a document in which the EU competition authority lays out its concerns which companies need to address. Failure to do so could result in a hefty fine as well as an order to stop the anti-competitive practices.
A settlement has its benefits, said Antoine Colombani, spokesman for competition policy at the EU executive.
“We hope that such a settled outcome can be achieved, since it would be a quicker way to remove the competition problems we have identified,” he said, adding that the regulator has the option of charging Google if it is not satisfied with its offer.
Google did not respond to an email seeking comment.
People familiar with the matter have previously told Reuters that Google, as part of a settlement, had offered to label its own services in search results to differentiate them from rival services, and also to impose fewer restrictions on advertisers.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission in January ended its own investigation into Google’s business practices without any significant action, handing Google a major victory.