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EU antitrust chief growls at Google, hopes to avoid sanctions

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Brussels' competition chief Joaquin Almunia has sniffed at any suggestion that the European Commission would follow the US consumer watchdog by allowing Google to avoid a tough settlement over its alleged "abuse of dominance" in the online search market.

Speaking with the Financial Times, the commissioner said that the stateside Federal Trade Commission's decision would have no bearing on the EC's separate probe of Google's business practices. For his part, Almunia has said it is his "conviction" that the multi-billion dollar corporation is "diverting traffic" to its own services.

He told the pink'un:

You can ... think, well, this European authority, the commission, has received a gift from the American authorities, given that now every result they will get will be much better than the conclusions of the FTC.

Google people know very well that they need to provide results and real remedies, not arguments or comparisons with what happened on the other [of the Atlantic].

A response from the commissioner is understood to be imminent, after Almunia's office told Google in mid-December that it must convince its rivals that it competes fairly in the web search market or else it could - within months - face sanctions for alleged "abuse of dominance".

Many of Google's competitors, including a bruised Microsoft, have long complained that the ad giant favours its own services over its rivals' products in web search results. Google could be fined $4bn - 10 per cent of its revenue - if no deal can be reached and it loses a subsequent legal battle with the European Commission.

But Almunia is keen to stop short of such sanctions.

He has been clear for many months now that the favoured route would be a pre-charge deal that would force Google to make concessions about how its search results are served up in the EU that would - at best - placate its rivals. However, the talks the competition commissioner has had with Google chairman Eric Schmidt have apparently stopped short of any discussions about the company's algorithm.

Schmidt also came in for light praise from the antitrust chief, who noted that the one-time boss of Google had conducted himself well during the inquiry, having learned apparently how not to behave with the commission, following Microsoft's epic battle with Brussels over competition issues that ended disastrously for Redmond.

A legally-binding deal with Google, Almunia told the FT, would be "better", "quicker" and "simpler". He believes that European consumers would benefit from such a settlement being struck. It would also mean that Google would not have to admit to any apparent wrongdoing.

As for the complainants in the case, the commissioner said that neither his office or Google had "contributed to the noise and fury." He added: "The orchestra is in another place." ®

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