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Mr Almunia, how many more times can Google rewrite Euro search 'dominance' settlement?

We count 3 so far... Are there no limits?

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Analysis On 30 November 2014, the European Commission will have been probing Google's search business practices for a whopping four years.

Formal proceedings were opened against the ad giant in late 2010.

The date is significant, given that by then we should also know who will replace antitrust boss Joaquin Almunia in Brussels.

As the Spanish politician's term as chief competition prober comes to a close, the DG Comp office appears to have somewhat shifted its position on the lengthy case.

The EC has expressed major concerns that Google may have abused its dominant position in web search - where it commands around 90 per cent of the market within the European Union.

However, at the same time, Almunia has been steadfast on his promise to reach a settlement deal with Google that stops far short of sanctions or demanding up to 10 per cent of the company's annual turnover.

Google has been given three separate chances to revise its concessions on search, in part, because Almunia has stuck so firmly to favouring such an outcome that, he argues, will restore competition more swiftly than forcing the multinational down a so-called Statement of Objections route.

And yet, it now appears that the case could drag on way beyond Almunia's mandate if the commission decides to chuck out Google's most recent offer and press for a fourth settlement deal.

In which case, so much for restoring competition in the EU quickly.

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Almunia's office was considering "revisiting" the proposed settlement.

This comes after the commission was lambasted in recent months for failing to reel in Google by signalling that it would agree to the company's terms as set out in its third offer, even though search rivals have repeatedly warned that such measures would kill off even more of Mountain View's competitors in Europe.

In response to the WSJ report, Brussels' officials said today:

The Google investigation is ongoing. We have written to the formal complainants in the ongoing proceedings and we have not received yet all their replies.

In early August all replies will have been submitted. We will then thoroughly analyse the arguments they contain and, depending on the outcome of that analysis, the next steps will be decided by Vice President Almunia in September.

The Register understands that the EC has received eight replies from the 20 complainants in the case. It's possible that some of these responses have forced Almunia to rethink the proposals.

But, significantly, the commissioner hasn't made his mind up yet.

One source familiar with the case told El Reg that it now appeared clear that the commission's decision not to market-test Google's most recent settlement offer was a mistake.

However, it's difficult to know what Almunia's next move will be come September. He could still decide to wave through the settlement deal unchanged. Or he may call on Google to work on a fresh offer, which would then inevitably fall into the lap of Almunia's successor at DG Comp.

To do that would be something of a political failure for Almunia, who has repeatedly said he wanted to tie up the case so the commission could shift its focus to other Google competition concerns, including an investigation that looks at the company's Android operating system biz practices.

Tellingly, in 2013, Almunia said of the Google search case (PDF):

The commission had concerns that Google may be abusing its dominant position in the markets for web search, online search advertising and online search advertising intermediation in the EEA [European Economic Area]. The commission considered that such practices could harm consumers by reducing choice and stifling innovation in the fields of specialised search services and online search advertising.

To address commission’s competition concerns, Google submitted a first set of commitments in April and a revised set of commitments in October. The Commission sought feedback on Google's revised commitments through formal requests for information. In light of the feedback it received, the commission came to the conclusion that the revised commitments still fell short of adequately addressing the competition concerns the commission expressed in its preliminary assessment.

The Commission informed Google that if it wished to submit a further revised set of commitments that adequately addressed the Commission's concerns, it had only a very limited amount of time to do so.

Almunia's office warned at the time that it "would revert to the procedure under Article 7 of Regulation 1/2003 [Statement of Objections]" if Google failed to submit a reworked offer swiftly.

The company met that deadline, but its proposed five-year-long settlement deal with the EC has faced fierce opposition ever since from search rivals, publishers and many other online businesses since Almunia signalled plans to wind down the case.

But how might Brussels proceed if it takes the unusual step to demand a fourth revised package of concessions from Google? How much time will Google be given to work on another offer? Will complainants in the case be able to market test the proposals this time around? And does this case show that there should be a limit on how many chances a powerful corporation is granted before negative proceedings begin?

It's possible that a newly installed competition boss will come in and entirely change the state of play with the Google case. But Almunia could yet surprise EU antitrust observers again with a decision in September that simply cements the settlement deal thrashed out with the ad giant in February. ®

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