December 4, 2011 9:31 pm

Brussels homes in on Google antitrust case

The European Commission is homing in on a list of concerns about Google’s business practices that could form the basis of an antitrust complaint against the US internet search group.

The narrowing of the investigation to issues red flagged by Brussels marks a turning point in an inquiry that has been running for almost two years.

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However, the commission has yet to decide whether to bring a formal complaint against the company or lay out its concerns in detail, said people familiar with the situation.

News that the European case has moved into a more advanced phase comes just days before Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman, is due to meet Joaquín Almunia, the European competition commissioner.

Mr Almunia last week played down suggestions that the meeting could turn into a showdown with the US company over antitrust issues, telling reporters that it had not been called to discuss the competition case “in detail”. He added: “We are very keen to exchange views.”

People who have been in contact with the commission say regulators are paying particular attention to ways in which Google downgrades some rival websites in its search results, while playing up its own services. This has involved favouring its specialised, or “vertical”, services for maps and shopping.

Google has argued that showing more detailed answers high up in its search results helps users get to information faster and has denied deliberately disadvantaging any rivals.

In recent months, a number of companies have filed fresh complaints to Brussels, claiming to have been hurt by Google’s practices. But the regulator has signalled to some of these companies’ lawyers that their complaints may be set aside as it focuses on a more advanced investigation into areas arousing most concern, according to a person familiar with the case.

The commission began an informal inquiry into complaints about how Google maintains its search dominance in early 2010 and extended the case into a full investigation in November last year.

Should the commission’s staff decide to press ahead with a complaint, they would need to produce a detailed statement of objections against the company and win backing from Mr Almunia and others at the commission to take on such a high-profile target.

The commission has yet to lay out its concerns to Google. However, the targets of European antitrust cases often do not learn about their position until a full statement of objections has been issued – as happened with Microsoft. Once a formal complaint has been issued, companies often have little choice but to agree to a settlement or face onerous business sanctions.

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