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Google submits YET ANOTHER offer to fix 'search dominance' in EU

Antitrust commish speaking softly for now - while fingering his big regulatory stick

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Google, in an effort to resolve the European Commission's competition concerns relating to the company's strong grip on the search market in the EU, has submitted yet another revised set of proposals to Brussels' officials.

Antitrust commissioner Joaquin Almunia told Bloomberg that he had received the rejigged offer from Google "in the previous week".

He added: "If we are satisfied with the new proposals, we can advance toward an agreed solution in the coming months."

In July this year, Almunia demanded that Google once again makes changes to how its web search business functions in Europe – or risk a fat fine for breaching competition law in the 28-state bloc.

The commissioner said at the time that Google had "to present better proposals, or improved proposals" to address accusations that it abused its dominant position to stifle its rivals. Mountain View commands about 90 per cent of the online search market in Europe.

Almunia is investigating allegations that Google unfairly lowballs its rivals in search results, promotes its own stuff and lifts material from competing websites.

Google persistently maintains that its proposals to Brussels' competition officials are good enough. The company is then told otherwise, and again tweaks its offer.

The investigation itself has been a lengthy one: in November it will be three years since complainants in the case, who include Microsoft and UK-based price comparison site Foundem, first convinced the EU to probe Google's search biz practices to determine whether the corporation was guilty of abusing its dominant position.

More recently, Almunia has concluded that it was likely that Google had done exactly that. The company proceeded to play hardball with the commission for many months with a proposal that was universally rejected by Google's competitors.

The main tenet of that offer involved the Larry Page-run multinational saying it would clearly label its individual services as a Google property on its search engine. It said in the summer that if a deal was struck with the commission, it would explain to netizens why it was linking to a Google product on its site.

At that point, Google still planned to have its services ranking as highly as possible on its search engine, but added it would tell its users that alternative links to rival products were available.

Almunia told Bloomberg that Google could still be slapped with a statement of objections if he finds that the company's "new proposals are not able to limit our concerns". He added, however, that this would "take too long".

"It's a very difficult one,” said Almunia. “We are dealing with new factors; we are dealing with a sector of activity that is moving very, very fast."

The commissioner may also be clock-watching at this point, seeing as his term in office comes to an end next year.

Google's rivals have privately questioned Almunia's ability to negotiate with the ad giant, given the number of times he has now told the company to revise its offer in a move to allay four areas of competition concern in the search market in Europe.

The commissioner has been keen to stop short of issuing sanctions against Google. He has repeatedly said that he hopes to proceed with a legally binding settlement with Google which would mean the company was not required to admit any wrongdoing, nor would it be hit with a fine of up to 10 per cent of its annual worldwide turnover.

Lobby group FairSearch, which represents the likes of Microsoft, Foundem, Tripadvisor and Expedia, said that Google needed to address the concerns laid out by Almunia.

The organisation's legal counsel Thomas Vinje said:

Given the failure of Google to make a serious offer last time around, we believe it is necessary that customers and competitors of Google be consulted in a full, second market test.

But Google's Brussels' spokesman insisted to Bloomberg that its "proposal to the European Commission addresses their four areas of concern".

It's not the first time Google has made such a claim, of course. ®

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