Google, EC likely to settle 'in coming months'

The two sides are working out technical and practical details to a settlement, Competition Commissioner Almunia says

Google and the European Commission could hammer out a search antitrust settlement within months, with both sides now working on the details of an agreement, EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said Wednesday.

Almunia, during a press conference, confirmed news reports that the two sides are talking about a settlement. Google officials have expressed "willingness to really solve our objections," Almunia said.

The two sides will work on "technical and practical solutions" to the Commission's antitrust complaints in the coming months, he said. There is no deadline for concluding a settlement, Almunia said.

The investigation is limited to Google's search engine, he said, in response to a question about whether the inquiry had expanded to mobile and tablet systems. The Commission reserves the right to investigate Google for other antitrust issues in the future, he said.

One reporter asked Almunia if a settlement would allow the Commission to see Google's algorithms to confirm changes in the way it delivers search results. "It's up to them to explain to us what kind of solution they propose," he said.

Google declined to talk about a potential settlement. "We continue to work cooperatively with the European Commission," a spokeswoman said. 

The Commission's investigation focuses on four concerns, including whether Google favors its own services in search results and whether Google is copying other Web content such as user reviews from competitors.

The Association for Competitive Technology, a U.S. trade group aligned with Google competitor Microsoft, said it is cautiously optimistic about a settlement. But the key to a good settlement is for Google to admit it has engaged in anticompetitive behavior, said Jonathan Zuck, president of the trade group.

"If they fundamentally don't get what's wrong with what they're doing, they're gonna find ways to keep doing it," Zuck said in an email. "This has been the case here with piracy and privacy. Despite fines and other externally imposed constraints, their behavior has changed very little."

Google doesn't need to admit liability, but "I do care that they represent fundamental changes in behavior and not superficial placation of the EC," Zuck added.

The FairSearch coalition, a group of companies critical of Google's business practices, called for strong monitoring and enforcement mechanisms in a settlement. The group "would welcome a rapid, substantive and legally enforceable change to Google's business practices that steer users to its own products and away from others," FairSearch said in a statement. "Only when these practices end will Google's ongoing harm to consumers and innovators end."

A settlement in Europe could have an effect on an antitrust investigation at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, said Albert Foer, president of the American Antitrust Institute, a research and advocacy group that often pushes for antitrust investigations.

"The FTC and the EC have been in constant contact about their investigations," Foer said in an email. "It is likely that they are making strong efforts to achieve consistent results, but, of course, they are dealing with slightly different laws, slightly different markets, and possibly slightly different areas of perceived violations."

The FTC may not "automatically follow suit, although my best guess at this time is that there will be substantial consistency in the end," he added.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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