Google offered weeks to settle EU investigation

Foo Yun Chee | May 22, 2012 7:35 AM
Last chance before hefty fine.

The European Union's antitrust chief has given Google a firm deadline to settle an investigation into allegations of anti-competitive behaviour and avoid formal charges.

It comes as part of an ongoing, 18-month European Commission investigation into allegations Google manipulated search results to promote its own advertising services, while demoting rivals'.

EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said regulators were as keen as Google to avoid lengthy proceedings due to rapid developments in the technology industry. If remedies were offered by Google within the coming weeks, the antitrust investigation could be brought to a close, he said.

"I believe that these fast-moving markets would particularly benefit from a quick resolution of the competition issues identified. Restoring competition swiftly to the benefit of users at an early stage is always better than lengthy proceedings," Almunia told a news briefing.

"Google has repeatedly expressed to me its willingness to discuss any concerns that the Commission might have without having to engage in adversarial proceedings, this is why today I'm giving Google an opportunity to offer remedies to address concerns that we have identified," he said.

Almunia said he had sent a letter to Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, with a deadline for a response.

Google said it disagreed with the Commission's conclusions but that it was happy to discuss the issues further. The company controls 86 percent of the European search market, according to online data tracking service comScore.

Last chance?

The deadline comes as a last chance to Google before issuing formal charges, according to David Wood, a lawyer for lobbying group ICOMP.

ICOMP's members include Microsoft, British price comparison site Foundem and German online mapping company Hotmaps; all three complainants in the EU case.

"This is effectively the Commission demanding remedies, failing that there will be a statement of objections (EU charge sheet)," he said.

If Google can come up with remedies and the Commission finds the proposals acceptable following a market test, it could drop the 18-month-long investigation without levying a fine on the company, Almunia said.

There are currently 16 complaints against Google before the Commission, with the latest grievances coming from several online travel agencies such as TripAdvisor, Opodo and eDreams.

Though the majority of complaints are from small competitors across Europe. US authorities are also investigating the search giant.

Other investigations into Google are also pending for the commission, including complaints against Android's market share and the way the company's search engine ranks results for travel agencies.

The commission can fine companies up to ten percent of their global turnover for breaching EU rules and has handed down multi-million euro fines to Microsoft and Intel, among others, in the past.