Google gets closer to EU antitrust deal over search dominance 'abuse'

Likelier than ever to avoid fines, having to admit wrongdoing

But will scrutiny of Google be properly independent if deal is reached?

In its original offer in March, Google unashamedly said that it wanted to appoint the "monitoring trustee" who would be required to closely inspect the ad giant to ensure it sticks to its commitments with the commission.

Google had proposed putting forward a list of suitable candidates for the role. That trustee, Google claimed, would be independent from the company but paid by Mountain View to carry out the work.

"The monitoring trustee shall be remunerated by Google in a way that does not influence or impede the independent and effective fulfilment of its mandate," Google said at the time.

Almunia told MPs today that "in a commitment that in my view deserves careful attention, an independent monitoring trustee would be put in place to provide assistance to the Commission in ensuring that the principles outlined in Google's proposals would be implemented in practice."

It's not yet clear if the "careful attention" the commissioner talks of has anything to do with Google hiring the trustee, or whether the individual will, in fact, be truly independent of the company.

Settlement could be agreed by next spring

The commissioner said that he was now at a "key moment" in a case that has rumbled on for nearly three years.

He said Google would "support its new proposals with empirical data to show their impact."

As a next step, I will seek feedback on the improved commitments proposal from complainants and other relevant market participants. To that end, we will send information requests, on the basis of the EU Antitrust Regulation 1/2003, on the improvements that are being proposed.

We know the general positions of the complainants and other stakeholders. What we need now is to receive concrete technical elements on the effectiveness of the proposed package in order to conclude whether this new proposal is satisfactory from a competition point of view.

If our investigation on this improved proposal is satisfactory, I will continue the commitments route [Article 9] and end up with a formal decision next Spring. Otherwise, I will be forced to turn to a procedure under Article 7 of the Antitrust Regulation [PDF]: this would mean sending a Statement of Objections to Google in the coming months, to which Google could formally respond in writing and during an Oral Hearing.

Almunia concluded: "I think the settlement route remains the best choice."

Complainants against Google are now digesting the commissioner's remarks in Parliament this morning. The ICOMP lobby group – which counts Google's bitter rival Microsoft as a member – appeared unsatisfied with Almunia's speech.

Its legal counsel David Wood said, according to tweets from ICOMP: "It's unclear that the revised commitments go nearly far enough to meet third party concerns and restore competition, not least because it's unclear how much detail of the proposed package and supporting data will be made public."

He added: "The Commission's plan to issue Requests for Information would seem much less satisfactory than a second formal market test." ®

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