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El Reg drills into Google's search biz offer to Europe

Mountain View wants to choose its EU inspector

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Time for the market to rebut the offer?

Microsoft, which is the best-known - if not the most relevant - complainant in the EC's Google competition case, has declined to comment directly on the offer tabled by Mountain View.

It's now up to the market to put it to the test.

However, lobby group ICOMP - which is backed by Microsoft - was quick to point out that it will be looking closely at the proposals to ensure that such remedies would indeed restore competition in Europe. It said:

If the proposals don’t clearly set out non-discrimination principles and the means to deal with the restoration of effective competition, plus effective enforcement and compliance, it’s very difficult to see how they can be satisfactory.

Commissioner Almunia himself has stated that returning competition to markets effectively destroyed by Google’s dominance and abuse of that position is the main aim of this investigation. We will comment further once we have had an opportunity to evaluate the proposals in more detail but it is clear that mere labelling is not any kind of solution to the competition concerns that have been identified.

Google should implement the same ranking policy to all websites. This should include their own vertical services which currently have their ranking unfairly manipulated to appear at or near the top of search results.

The European Consumers Organisation (BEUC) - which is funded by the European Union and is made up of national competition quangos from 30 different countries - has previously expressed concern about Google's plans to label its web properties on its search engine. The idea has been floated since last autumn.

BEUC said on Thursday that it was disappointed with Google's proposal arguing that the offer was unlikely to address the company's "monopoly" of the search market in Europe. It continued:

Labelling results will do little or indeed nothing to prevent Google from manipulating search results and discriminating against competing services. It may even shepherd consumers towards clicking on Google services now highlighted in a frame. Labelling should not be the sole solution.

Infringements of competition rules call for strong and rigorous structural remedies where needed, going beyond the halfway house of consumer information. Labelling an infringement of competition law doesn’t prevent it being an infringement.

The proposal to display links to three rival specialised services raises the natural question of who decides the promotional criteria. If that is Google, it leaves too much discretion in their lap while most importantly, not solving the problem of non-discriminatory choices for consumers.

The lobby group is hoping to convince the commission to push for more stringent changes from Google before any deal about possible anti-competitive practices is struck.

It's important to note, however, that Almunia has now accepted the wording of Google's commitments to fix its search dominance in Europe by allowing the offer to proceed to the next stage. Horse-trading between the commissioner and Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt has gone on for many months with a number of proposals submitted by Google being rejected by Almunia.

It really is now up to the market to either convince the competition chief to continue fighting the ad giant, or else belt up for the five-year ride to see if Google can truly commit. ®

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