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Almunia: Final Google Antitrust Decision Coming Soon

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The European Commission will decide within weeks whether to accept Google’s latest antitrust settlement terms

Google should expect a final decision “in the coming weeks” on whether the European Commission will accept the company’s latest proposals in its bid to avoid an antitrust action, according to competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia.

The EC rejected earlier proposals submitted by Google in April after sending them to the tech titan’s competitors for comment, a process it terms “market testing”. Almunia said he is about to decide whether to turn Google’s revised offer into legally binding measures, or instead to formally launch an antitrust case against the company.

‘Decisive weeks’

The case is “important but it cannot be prolonged forever, so we are now in the decisive weeks”, Almunia said in a speech at a conference of the International Bar Association in Florence, Italy on Friday. “Time is of the essence and in the coming weeks I will take a decision.”

google-london-officeThe probe began in November 2010 after competitors including Microsoft accused Google of using its dominant position in search to unfairly promote its other services, such as those focused on travel and shopping, over those of competitors. These rivals also allege that Google copies competitors’ travel and restaurant reviews and has agreements with websites and software developers that stifle advertising competition.

“It is my responsibility to ensure that Google does not abuse this gatekeeper role in the EU to push its own services against those of competitors who may be just as innovative,” Almunia said.

He said his priority is to “preserve competition” amongst Internet-based services in the coming years. “Whether we will ultimately achieve this through a commitment process is still open at this point in time.”

Google faces a fine of up to $5 billion (£3bn) and a partial ban on its services in Europe if it loses an antitrust challenge by the EC.

Commitment

The company’s latest proposals, which have not been made public, could be submitted for “market testing” and ultimately turned into legally binding commitments. Alternatively, the EC could decide to produce a formal complaint, called a statement of objections, “if we consider that the new proposals are not able to limit our concerns”, Almunia said.

Google would have the opportunity to respond to the EC’s complaint, and could request a hearing.

So far, Almunia has been pushing for a resolution through the commitment process, but he said on Friday that Google faces “a possible negative decision” on that front, which would mean antitrust action.

The EC collected up-to-date information from Google’s competitors over the summer, which will inform Almunia’s decision and could be used in the statement of objections.

The EC is currently analysing Google’s latest offer and is expected to deliver an assessment to Almunia as soon as this week, according to unnamed people familiar with the matter cited by the Financial Times.

Google said that its latest proposal to the EC addressed the concerns in question. “We continue to work with the commission to settle this case,” Google stated.

‘Systematic harm’

The Microsoft-backed Initiative for a Competitive Online Marketplace said it is confident that the EC will take whatever action is necessary against Google.

“We are optimistic that vice-president Almunia and his colleagues have recognised that search discrimination, whereby Google uses its gatekeeper role systematically to harm the commercial opportunities of its competitors, needs to be ended,” the organisation said in a statement.

Google faced a similar probe by the US Federal Trade Commission, but was cleared of charges, reaching a voluntary agreement with the regulator in January.

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