Google EU antitrust end in sight says competition chief

Google's antitrust spat with the European Commission could reach preliminary settlement as early as January 2013, the EC's competition chief has suggested, after a meeting with chairman Eric Schmidt in Brussels this week. "Since our preliminary talks with Google started in July, we have substantially reduced our differences regarding possible ways to address each of the four competition concerns expressed by the Commission" competition policy VP Joaquín Almunia said in a statement, heralding an end to arguments over how Google displays search results, adverts, and content from its rivals online.

"After meeting Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, today in Brussels, I have decided to continue with the process towards reaching an agreement based on Article 9 of the EU Antitrust regulation" Almunia said of the talks. "On the basis of the progress made, I now expect Google to come forward with a detailed commitment text in January 2013."

The EC had voiced concerns about Google's positioning of its own search results and services, after rivals complained that the company was artificially prioritizing its own tools ahead of theirs. There had also been controversy over the AdWords system, with Google asked for more transparency in how it handles campaigns.

Although Schmidt has long argued that Google's primary concern is delivering the most useful results to its users, this latest meeting indicates there's a softening of the search giant's stance if it means potentially escaping more arduous antitrust penalties. A parallel investigation in the US had initially been expected to conclude by the end of the year, but more recent leaks indicate a settlement is unlikely to come until 2013.

Assuming Google plays nicely with its commitment letter, the EC's next step will be to draft up a list of de-facto demands. "We will then prepare a Preliminary Assessment formally setting out our concerns" Almunia explained. "The Preliminary Assessment would serve as a basis for Google to present formal commitments which would then be market-tested, leading to a possible decision with binding commitments."

The leaked concessions Google was rumored to be offering in the US included a promise not to copy third-party content for inclusion in Google's own services, and tools that would allow AdWords users to compare their marketing performance with that of other campaign providers. Although not officially confirmed by either the FTC or Google, the prospect of the search company escaping without official censure had many foaming at the mouth, arguing that it would only end up re-offending.