Google near EU search antitrust settlement with extra concessions

Google has submitted a new set of proposed remedies in the hope of escaping EU antitrust censure, the vice president in charge of competition policy has reveled, now encompassing mobile and voice search in addition to traditional methods. Negotiations continued until the end of September, Joaquín Almunia told the European Parliament today, and while he would not detail the concessions, did say that they were much improved over the initial set of generally panned possibilities. Among the tweaks, Almunia commented, was how the search giant will treat "queries entered in Google in whatever form – whether they are typed or spoken – and irrespective of the entry point or the device."

That's a particularly important part of the settlement, Almunia argued, since the nature of search is so fast moving. In fact, he pointed out, the search industry has changed considerably just in the time that the antitrust investigation itself has been underway.

"The industry we are looking at is also particularly fast moving, because online search itself is constantly evolving. Since we started the investigation, the way search results are presented and the kind of services provided have changed many times" the EC vice president responsible for competition policy said.

"Moreover, the initial complaints focused on static devices, but in the meantime mobile devices have become more and more relevant, which led not only to the introduction of new search services but also to changes in the way users access and interact with existing ones."

While Almunia couldn't comment on the specifics of an ongoing case, he did outline some of the ways in which Google has been more open to concessions. Google had offered to put rivals' links in more prominent positions on its search results pages and boxing out its own promoted products, but competitors had criticized the scheme as in fact highlighting the company's wares.

Instead, Almunia said, competitors would have more space on the page and the possibility of a logo too, while Google would put "dynamic text" by the section to explain its purpose. An auction system is anticipated to settle the positioning of results for specific queries.

As for how Google uses content from other sites, having been accused of effectively scraping third-party services for data and then threatening to punish them for opting-out by downgrading their search rank, the company has supposedly "improved the granularity of the opt-out that is offered to third party web sites" and agreed to tighter safeguards against any retaliatory actions.

Google has also agreed to cease including in any agreements provisions or impositions that forced publishers to get online search adverts exclusively through its own advertising division. The company would also cease any attempts to block advertisers from shifting their campaigns to other providers.

Finally, Google has agreed to an independent monitoring trustee to keep oversight into its behaviors in search in the European Union, "a commitment that in my view deserves careful attention" Almunia says. "We have reached a key moment in this case" he concluded.

The agreed proposals are still to be confirmed, but Almunia's goal – and that of Google, unsurprisingly – is to reach an agreement not a legal censure. Fining Google might bring in an influx of cash, but it wouldn't necessarily deliver better, fairer searches to those in the EU and the companies that compete with Google.

Excepted comments by Joaquín Almunia, Vice President of the European Commission responsible for Competition Policy:

Google has now improved the commitments it has offered. We have negotiated improvements until yesterday.

Although I cannot describe the details, I can tell you that the new proposal more appropriately addresses the need for any commitments to be able to cover future developments. Therefore, the new proposal relates to queries entered in Google in whatever form – whether they are typed or spoken – and irrespective of the entry point or the device.

One of the most significant improvements relates to the vertical search concern, which was the point that received the strongest critical comments during the market test.

Many respondents during the market test said that in this Google proposal the links to rivals that would be displayed for certain categories of specialised search services were not visible enough.

In my opinion, the new proposal makes these links significantly more visible. A larger space of the Google search result page is dedicated to them. Rivals have the possibility to display their logo next to the link, and there will be a dynamic text associated to each rival link to better inform the user of its content.

Market test respondents also contested the organization of the proposed auction to determine the rival links that would be displayed on Google's search results page for the most commercial categories of specialised search services.

The new proposal foresees an auction mechanism which includes the option to bid for each specific query. This is important to also ensure that smaller specialized search operators can be displayed.

As regards the second concern included in the Preliminary Assessment – the use of content produced by others – Google has improved the granularity of the opt-out that is offered to third party web sites. It also tightens the provision that ensures that Google cannot retaliate against web sites that make use of the opt-out.

With regard to the third concern, Google has committed to no longer include in its agreements with publishers any provisions or impose any unwritten obligations that would require publishers to source their requirements for online search advertisements exclusively from Google in relation to queries from EEA users. The new proposal improves the safeguards against possible circumventions.

As regards the fourth concern, Google has offered to cease to impose any written or unwritten obligations that will prevent advertisers from porting and managing search advertising campaigns across Google's services and competing services. The new proposal again provides stronger guarantees against circumvention.

Finally, in a commitment that in my view deserves careful attention, an independent monitoring trustee would be put in place to provide assistance to the Commission in ensuring that the principles outlined in Google's proposals would be implemented in practice.