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Give Google a COLD HARD SLAP - web rivals' plea to Euro watchdog

Antitrust commish urged to bring charges against search giant

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The European Commission is under fresh pressure to stop Google from allegedly stifling rivals by favouring its own products in its search engine results.

Almost a dozen web companies want Brussels to issue a Statement of Objections, which would be a first step in bringing charges against the advertising giant.

In a joint letter to competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia, online firms Foundem, Expedia, Euro-Cities AG, Hot Maps Medien, Streetmap EU, TripAdvisor, Twenga, Visual Meta and three German publishing groups criticised Europe's ongoing probe into claims of Google's "abuse of dominance".

The group stated:

The Commission opened proceedings more than two years ago, and we are becoming increasingly concerned that effective and future-proof remedies might not emerge through settlement discussions alone.

Last year, Almunia said he had four areas of concern about Google's operations; these ranged from the company offering restaurant and news searches, to "copying original material from the websites of its competitors, such as user reviews".

Since then the EC and the ads giant have been locked in negotiations for many months with Google chairman Eric Schmidt doing much of the horse-trading on behalf of Mountain View.

The web titan has repeatedly proposed tweaking its online operations to allay the competition commissioner's concerns, only to be told to rethink those plans. However, it's understood that the talks are finally approaching a settlement that stops short of sanctions. Almunia has been clear from the start that this would be his preferred route.

But, unlike the Federal Trade Commission in the US - which cleared Google of any wrongdoing in the search market - Almunia is keen to avoid a weak settlement in Europe, where Google holds a 90 per cent share of search.

But Google's rivals now have a serious case of the jitters: they say that Mountain View's alleged search manipulation, which - it is claimed - favours the company's own results over those of its competitors, "far outweigh" the other three areas of concern Almunia has flagged up about the world's largest ad broker.

The missive continued:

In addition to materially degrading the user experience and limiting consumer choice, Google’s search manipulation practices lay waste to entire classes of competitors in every sector where Google chooses to deploy them.

The 11 complainants added that "any effective remedies will require explicit commitments to end" the alleged "demotion" of rival search products and the "promotion" of Google services. They added that Google needed to be "even-handed" with its own products by applying the "same standards, using exactly the same crawling, indexing, ranking, display, and penalty algorithms".

But, for this to happen, Google's rivals are convinced that the company should be formally charged with infringement of antitrust rules and are once again lobbying the EC to issue a Statement of Objections against the firm.

If Almunia hears this plea and slaps such a statement on Schmidt's desk, Google would then be able to reply in writing as well as request an oral hearing.

Only once such a defence has been submitted can the commission decide whether violations on competition grounds have occurred. Sufficient evidence would be needed to draw such a conclusion. The end result could lead to Google being whacked with a fine of up to 10 per cent of its annual worldwide revenue.

Interestingly, Microsoft - another vocal and powerful voice against Google's alleged search business abuse - was absent from the letter of complaint to Almunia.

Earlier this month, the Redmond giant was fined €561m ($724m, £477m) by the European Commission for breaking an agreement to offer Windows users alternative web browsers to Internet Explorer.

The company decided not to appeal against that penalty - which represented less than 1 per cent of Microsoft's annual global revenue. The Register understands that MS did not want to face a lengthy legal battle with the EC, which likely would have run into higher costs than the actual fine.

However, one interesting point that came out of that sanction imposed on Microsoft by Almunia was that the competition commissioner is said to be mulling over appointing trustees to ensure that multinationals who sign legally binding agreements with Brussels actually stick to those deals.

Google, then, could find itself policed by the commission whether or not a settlement that avoids financial penalties and admissions of wrongdoing is reached.

El Reg asked Almunia's office to comment on this story, but it hadn't got back to us at time of writing. Officially, the EC competition probe is expected to trundle on at least until the second half of this year. ®

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