Apparently affected by the strong blowback to its proposed settlement with Google over antitrust concerns, the European Commission is planning to seek more concessions than the company has granted to date.
The regulator and Google came to terms in February, in the case that dates to 2010, when competitors complained that Google favored its own services in search results, reducing the visibility of results from competing sites. But over the last few months, the Commission has received largely negative feedback from Google competitors on the settlement proposals.
"Some of these replies are very, very negative. And in some of those replies, some complainants have introduced new arguments, new data, new considerations," said Joaquín Almunia, Commission vice president in charge of competition policy, in an interview with Bloomberg TV on Saturday.
"So we now need to analyze this and to see if we can find solutions, if Google can find solutions, to some of these concerns we find justified, we are in this process," he said.
Almunia didn't say if the complaints would prompt the Commission to look to other ways of settling the case. "We are in an ongoing process so I cannot anticipate the end, I cannot anticipate the conclusions," he said, adding that the Commission is trying to understand the "solid arguments" of the complainants and is trying to extract solutions from Google.
Lead complainant Foundem was pleased to hear that Almunia considered the feedback to be justified.
"However, we are troubled that Commissioner Almunia seems minded to give Google an unprecedented fourth opportunity to propose further tweaks to a remedy package that has never been anything more than a confidence trick," Shivaun Raff, one of Foundem's founders, said in an emailed statement.
"Google's track record in this case makes it clear that it is unlikely to volunteer effective remedies without being formally charged with infringement. Moreover, Google has already exploited every delay to further entrench, extend, and escalate its anti-competitive activities," she said, urging Almunia to reject Google's proposals and pursue a decision that will end, rather than escalate, the abusive practices the Commission has identified.
To mitigate antitrust concerns, Google among other things proposed to show three clearly labeled rival links for every query that results in links to Google's services. Some of these links will require the rivals to pay Google. Almunia has said earlier that that these settlement proposals were acceptable.
Foundem however disagreed with this view. In its rebuttal sent to the Commission in July it accused the Commission of apparently adopting wholesale Google's proposal to settle the case, while giving complainants no fair chance to express their views on the settlement. Foundem argued that all of the Commission's key arguments for adopting Google's proposals are erroneous and directly contradict the fundamental conclusions of the Commission's own preliminary assessment. It asked the Commission to review the case.
That sentiment was echoed by European publishers last week who urged the Commission to reject Google's proposals because they would inflict additional harm to competition, innovation and consumer choice as they are based on an ineffective and harmful concept, they said in a position paper.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, however said in a blog post on Saturday that Google isn't promoting its own products at the expense of the competition. He responded to an ad ran by some of Europe's biggest publishers this weekend accusing the company of favoring its own products like Maps, YouTube and Google Shopping in its search results.
"We're trying to get you direct answers to your queries because it's quicker and less hassle than the ten blue links Google used to show. This is especially important on mobile where screens are smaller and typing is harder," he said, adding that many specialized search services don't like these improvements because they mean less traffic for them.
While the complaints by publishers and others have been investigated by regulators in Europe and the U.S. for over seven years, "to date, no regulator has objected to Google giving people direct answers to their questions for the simple reason that it is better for users," Schmidt said.
Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to [email protected]