Google, E.U. reach settlement in antitrust case

Francois Lenoir/REUTERS - European Union Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia talks about the Google settlement during a news conference at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Feb. 5.

Google settled an antitrust case with European regulators Wednesday, ending an investigation lasting more than three years into whether the tech firm’s search practices undermined competition.

The tentative settlement does not require Google to pay a fine, which could have topped $5 billion, and the Mountain View, Calif., company did not admit wrongdoing.

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Under the deal, Google agreed to make modest changes to the way it displays content in Europe. A competitor could pay to have its content “clearly visible” in Google’s search results for services such as hotels and restaurants.

A user searching for a gas grill, for example, would be shown two boxes adjacent to each other, one featuring “Google Shopping results” and a second one labeled “Alternatives.”

Google, which controls more than 90 percent of the search market in some European countries, said in a statement that the deal reflects “significant changes” to the way it operates in Europe. The deal will not affect what Americans see when they use Google.

As part of its agreement, Google is also required to make it easier for advertisers to run ads simultaneously on Google’s ad platform and those of competitors. And Google will be required to give third-party sites more control over whether their content is listed in search results.

After two previous proposals were rejected as unsuitable, European Union antitrust commissioner Joaquin Almunia said Wednesday that Google’s new offer addressed the commission’s concerns.

But the deal immediately drew criticism from competitors that said it did not go far enough.

FairSearch Europe, an interest group whose members include Microsoft, Nokia, travel site Expedia and others, said accepting Google’s offer was “worse than doing nothing.” Requiring competitors to pay in order to receive the improved placement leaves them at a continued disadvantage, it said.

The offer undercuts “the ability of others to compete and provide consumer choice,” Thomas Vinje, legal counsel for FairSearch Europe, said in a statement.

Despite those concerns, the European settlement goes farther than the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s examination of Google. After a two-year antitrust investigation, the FTC dropped the case, saying Google had not broken any laws.

The end of Google’s European battle clears the search giant from a litany of legal scrutiny. Two years ago, the company was under investigation on both sides of the Atlantic, but it has emerged largely unscathed. The European Commission said it will continue a separate antitrust probe into whether Google is using its Android operating system to dominate the mobile market.

Some experts have complained that the commission had not been transparent about the deal. “If they had confidence in the proposal, they would put it out for public comment,” said Gary Reback, a Silicon Valley antitrust lawyer.

The commission will review comments from competitors before finalizing the deal, but it has not released the details of Google’s proposal to the public, unlike the previous two drafts.

An independent trustee will be responsible for monitoring the tech company’s compliance with the new agreement for the next five years.

Timothy B. Lee contributed to this report.

 
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