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Google 'dominance abuse' games may yet mean monster Euro smack

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Google could still be slapped with massive fines if it is found by Brussels officials to have violated competition rules in Europe, the EC's antitrust chief has chillingly warned.

Joaquin Almunia, speaking in New York on Thursday, said he was yet to be satisfied by the apparent concessions proposed by Google.

He said:

As to Google, it is well known that we have competition concerns that the company is using its dominance in online search to foreclose rival specialised search engines and search advertisers.

After several exchanges with me, Google has agreed to propose solutions in the four specific areas of concern that we have identified.

I have now instructed my staff to engage into technical discussions with Google in order to assess in-depth the solutions presented to us.

If effective solutions were found quickly and tested successfully, competition could be restored at an early stage by means of a commitment decision.

However, we are not there yet, and it must be clear that – in the absence of satisfactory proposals in the short term – I will be obliged to continue with our formal proceedings.

In July, the search and advertising giant privately sent a revised package of concessions to Almunia after it was asked to clarify aspects of its proposed antitrust settlement.

That move came two weeks after Google had submitted to Brussels' competition watchdog what it described as a proposal that supposedly addressed the "abuse of dominance" claims outlined by Almunia in May this year.

It's now clear that Google chairman Eric Schmidt's horse-trading over the summer months failed to lead to a positive result for his company. What this means, in effect, is that Google will now need to offer further concessions in an effort to satisfy regulators or else face sanctions over breaching EU rules on competition.

Almunia appears to be publicly warning Google to hurry up and resolve any outstanding issues the commission has with the world's largest ad broker. Perhaps it's the case that patience is now running thin about finding a "solution" that doesn't lead to the conclusion that Google has pushed its search products on European consumers to the detriment of its rivals in that market.

Almunia, during his speech, widened out his gripes about companies actually committing to remedy proposals over competition concerns, such as the bargaining going on between the commission and Google right now. He highlighted Microsoft's inability to stick to its promise of offering its customers a selection of browsers - and not just Internet Explorer - via its Windows operating system. It's a matter currently being probed by the EC.

"Generally speaking, I consider that the commitments offered by the companies themselves are a good way to solve competition problems, as an alternative to lengthy proceedings," Almunia said, before snapping: "But the policy can work only if they translate their words into action. This is why I take compliance very seriously and I will make sure that we take the necessary decisions as a matter of priority."

A separate investigation of Google's market dominance in the search game is currently underway in the US. The Federal Trade Commission's chairman Jon Leibowitz told reporters in Washington this week that he hoped to see that probe concluded by the end of 2012.

He said, according to the New York Times: "I think that we’re going to try to get this resolved by the end of the year."

If the FTC issues a complaint against Google, then the company can expect a trial within 8 months, Leibowitz added. ®

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