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Google snubs Euro watchdog's 'abuse of dominance' claims

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Google remains at loggerheads with anti-competition officials in Brussels, who today went public for the first time with concerns about the search giant's "abuses of dominance".

The company's European public policy spokesman Al Verney has told Reuters that Google was disappointed by the European competition commissioner's latest findings, which were drawn up as part of his office's ongoing probe into alleged antitrust behaviour.

"We disagree with the conclusions but we're happy to discuss any concerns they might have," Verney said.

However, competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia's strong-arming of Google to reach a swift settlement was welcomed by complainants in the investigation, which began in November 2010.

Shivaun Raff, the CEO of UK-based vertical search engine Foundem which spurred on separate antitrust probes into Google on both sides of the Atlantic, told The Register that she was glad that her beef with the search giant had been addressed by the commissioner in Brussels this morning.

She said:

Foundem’s complaint, filed in November 2009 and updated in February 2010, was the first to document how Google systematically manipulates its ostensibly neutral search results to promote its own services while simultaneously demoting or excluding those of its competitors.

We are pleased that the commission has affirmed Foundem’s complaint, listing search manipulation as its first concern.

Foundem’s goal has always been to ensure that Google exercises its extraordinary market power responsibly, by reinstating the level playing field that is required for innovation and competition to thrive.

We have always emphasised the urgent need for a swift end to Google’s anti-competitive practices, and we are pleased that the commission is pursuing a path that could result in the particularly rapid implementation of binding remedies.

Raff added that the "imposition of remedies" was "now all but inevitable".

Microsoft-backed lobbying group ICOMP, of which Foundem is also a member, said that there appeared to be clear implication that Almunia's team had "found that Google’s behaviour constituted an abuse of its dominant position in the online search market".

It added its concerns that Google's actions may have violated European competition law. ICOMP said:

It is vital that the terms of any agreed settlement include measures to quickly redress the harm caused to European businesses and consumers and are sufficiently robust to ensure that such harm is not repeated. We trust that this will prove to be the case and a competitive online market place will be restored.

Fairsearch - a consortium also supported by Microsoft, Foundem, Expedia, Tripadvisor and others - said the concerns outlined by Almunia were a "welcome development" in the ongoing investigation.

The group's EU counsel Thomas Vinje said that he was pleased that the competition commissioner had "validated the concern that FairSearch members and many other businesses and consumer advocates have raised about Google's practices that distort the free market and deprive consumers of the transparency and real choice that only results from competitive markets".

He added: "Any settlement between Google and the EC would need to restore lost competition and remedy the anticompetitive effects of Google's conduct in both specialised and general search."

What might Google's next step be? It seems unlikely that the company will simply roll over and let its belly be tickled by the commissioner. But with a market share of more than 90 per cent of search in Europe, the internet giant, much like with Microsoft's software dominance before it, might very well have no choice but to concede. ®

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