EU antitrust chief wants new talks with Google complainants

The new commissioner needs time to decide on next steps as the matter is complex

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To get up to speed with the Google antitrust investigation, the European Union's new antitrust commissioner wants to talk to parties that are directly affected by the case.

Margrethe Vestager said she had been following the investigations into Google's search practices closely before she was nominated as Commissioner, but said new talks are still necessary.

"To decide how to take our investigations forward, I need to know what those most directly affected by the practices in question have to say. I need to have a representative sample of views of those concerned," she said in a statement Tuesday. "We are talking about fast moving markets -- I have to be sure that we have all the facts up to date to get it right."

Among those affected by the practices is lead complainant Foundem, a vertical search engine that along with others filed a complaint with the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, in 2010 alleging that Google favored its own services in search results while reducing the visibility of results from competing sites. Other parties with an interest include online publishers and BEUC, the European Consumer Organization.

These parties all opposed the terms agreed by Google and the previous antitrust Commissioner, Joaquín Almunia, in February, calling them mostly favorable to Google as the search engine's proposals were apparently adopted wholesale by the commission while complainants got no fair chance to express their views on the settlement.

After this flurry of negative feedback, the Commission demanded more concessions from Google. That process took time, though, leaving Almunia unable to finish the case before he handed over the reins to Vestager on Nov. 1.

"The issues at stake in our investigations have a big potential impact on many players, they are multifaceted and complex. I will therefore need some time to decide on the next steps," Vestager said. The Commission wouldn't say though how much time she is likely to need.

BEUC spokesman John Phelan said the organization was pleased with the renewed interest in the case despite the long process, adding that the change of Commission brought a breath of fresh air.

"We're reading between the lines and seeing a reinvigorated Commission looking at this. We're hoping to get a fairer result than under the previous Commission," Phelan said. The consumer organization wants the Commission to ensure there will be a fair and neutral European search market in the future. As such, this is not so much a case against Google but rather one with a much broader scope, he said.

Foundem did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, online payment issues as well as EU technology policy and regulation for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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