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Dominant web ad giant (Google) possibly 'weeks' away from Euro slapdown

Watchdog Almunia refuses to rule out fines in antitrust probe

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Google will learn within weeks if its alleged abuse of dominance in the European search market will earn it a formal complaint from the EU's competition regulator.

Sanctions and fines of up to 10 per cent of Google's annual worldwide turnover could yet be imposed on the company, antitrust commissioner and EC veep Joaquin Almunia said today.

His comments made it clear that Google's recent revised offer to tweak its search engine - submitted to the European Commission - was the final such package of concessions. The web ad goliath is accused of unfairly promoting its online services in its search results to the detriment of rivals.

If Almunia fails to be satisfied by the ad giant's latest proposed measures, which have been kept secret, then he will proceed by issuing a formal Statement of Objections (SO) to Google, a first step in forcing through a settlement or levying a fine. But if he is happy with the search results changes, Google could be legally bound to implement them.

"Google's algorithm played a major role in the company's success. Many startups – such as websites specialised in searches on particular topics – have benefited from Google’s role as one of the main entry points to the internet to roll out and rapidly bring new services to a wide audience," the competition commissioner, who leaves his role in 2014, said at a conference in Florence, Italy, on Friday.

"At the same time, it is my responsibility to ensure that Google does not abuse this gatekeeper role in the EU to push its own services against those of competitors who may be just as innovative," added Almunia.

He continued:

As you know, we want to find effective solutions to our concerns, so as to preserve competition in the coming years between these services. Whether we will ultimately achieve this through a commitment process is still open at this point in time.

But time is of the essence, and in the coming weeks I will take a decision about the use of Article 9, transforming Google's proposals into legally binding commitments, or go through the Article 7 route towards a SO and a possible negative decision.

This is the clearest indication to date from Almunia that he is ready to move to the next stage of an investigation that has been under way for nearly three years now.

It also suggests a negative outcome for Google's rivals, who have been lobbying hard for the commission to let them formally tear into Google's latest offer.

Almunia is now in a hurry to move the investigation along.

Earlier this month, Google submitted a revised plan to the Commission, after it was rejected by both the company's rivals and Almunia - who said that the advertising giant needed to present better or improved proposals.

Google has consistently maintained that it has addressed Almunia's concerns. Its chairman Eric Schmidt once told The Register that Google had "done nothing wrong" and was “happy to be educated on the contrary”. [sic] ®

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