Google’s rivals began a rearguard fight to scupper the US search group’s antitrust pact with Brussels on Thursday, giving a distinctly unimpressed first response to the formal publication of its proposed settlement.
The European Commission opened a month-long consultation on Google’s offer to redraw its search result in Europe to give more prominent links to rival search engines and clearer labels to its in-house services.
While the broad shape of the deal looks likely to survive, the anti-Google coalition will try to stiffen the measures or show them to be so flawed that the commission will be forced to serve formal antitrust charges. The almost two-dozen complaints against Google are unmatched in volume by any other EU antitrust case.
If formally adopted, the deal would bring to a close a three-year regulatory battle and spare Google hefty fines and more intrusive curbs on its behaviour. The price for Google is signing up to legal constraints on how it presents results for the first time in its history.
Most rivals said they were still analysing the details and tempered their public response. But the statement barely hid dismay that the commission did not demand more sweeping changes to stop Google favouring its own in-house services, such as Google shopping or maps.
Monique Goyens, head of the European consumer group Beuc, said: “The crux here is ensuring fair and non-discriminatory choices for EU consumers while eradicating the current anti-competitive behaviour in what is essentially a monopoly market. Our initial reaction is one of disappointment as we do not think today’s proposals can credibly achieve these targets.”
The Microsoft-led Initiative for a Competitive Online Marketplace also made clear that the offer fell short of its expectations. “It is clear that mere labelling is not any kind of solution to the competition concerns that have been identified. Google should implement the same ranking policy to all websites.”
This was echoed in stronger terms by Shivaun Raff, co-founder of Foundem, one of the first sites to take its complaint to Brussels. She said Google “seems to offer a halfhearted attempt to dilute their anti-competitive effects, by labelling Google’s own services and throwing in some token links to competitors’ services alongside them.”
Fairsearch, an alliance that includes Expedia, Microsoft, Kayak and Nokia, called for a longer consultation period of three months and noted the “high bar” set by the commission.
Joaquín Almunia, the EU competition commissioner, extracted much bigger concessions from Google than his US counterparts, who gave Google’s search business a clean bill of health in December.
But he now faces a challenge in defending the effectiveness of the settlement terms against a wall of opposition from the anti-Google camp. The commission is looking to gather views from a wide range of respondents that goes beyond the direct complainants. There is a chance extra demands will be made of Google before a final settlement is adopted.
The pact lets Google continue to give preferential placement to results from its own in-house services, like a weather forecast, map or stock price quote. But it will label those results more clearly to show where they come from, while also giving more prominence to links to rival search engines.
It offers third-party websites an easier opt-out from being used in Google services, such as news searches. Google would also no longer include clauses in its agreements requiring exclusivity in online search nor prevent the same campaign being run on other platforms.
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