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EC officials voice doubts about Almunia's planned Google settlement deal

Concerns could yet derail entire process

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Brussels' competition chief is facing a challenge from some of his colleagues in the European Commission who may yet derail his efforts to strike a settlement deal with Google over its alleged abuse of dominance in the search market.

Bloomberg reported, citing two sources familiar with the matter, that the EU's justice boss Viviane Reding and internal market and services official Michel Barnier had taken issue with Joaquin Almunia during the weekly meeting of the College of Commissioners on Wednesday.

The Register understands, according to a person close to the talks, that Almunia had hoped to stifle any discussion about his planned settlement deal with Google during the confab.

Barnier said after the meeting that a "long debate" had taken place that highlighted "concerns and questions" that the EC's vice president needed to carefully sift through.

Late last week, Microsoft and other Google foes claimed that Almunia had been too soft on Google by accepting its revised package of concessions to resolve a long-running antitrust dispute over the ad giant's search biz.

Rivals claim that Mountain View chokes competition in the 28 member-states' bloc, where Google commands around 90 per cent of the search market.

Almunia met with reporters in London last Friday when he hit back at Microsoft for claiming he had let Google slip through the net.

The commissioner told The Register when quizzed about such objections:

I cannot understand some voices [such as Microsoft] that have been involved in previous Article 9 commitment decisions, that now appear [to suggest] that a commitment decision is not an antitrust decision.

I cannot understand this.

But now concerns are seeping out from the Commission itself. El Reg is hearing that a variety of EU officials are worried about the proposed settlement deal, which - if waved through - would mean that Google would not be required to admit any wrongdoing, nor face the prospect of a gigantic fine.

It will, however, be legally obliged to stick to its commitments for five years. Almunia has said that such a move would restore competition more quickly then taking the case down an Article 7 route.

But the likes of commissioners such as Reding - who has clashed with Google in the past over her now scuppered, EU-wide data protection rewrite plans - may yet mothball any settlement deal from being sealed by around the summer as Almunia, whose term ends late in 2014, had hoped. ®

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