Google wins time on EU an­titrust charges

Its on­line changes may pre­vent fine, charge of guilt.

Austin American-Statesman - - BUSINESS - Byjames Kanter

BRUS­SELS — Google on Tues­day won more time from the Euro­pean Union’s top an­titrust en­forcer to make changes in its on­line ser­vices that could bring the com­pany a step closer to re­solv­ing a three-year in­ves­ti­ga­tion with­out a big fine or a find­ing of wrong­do­ing.

Af­ter meet­ing with Eric Sch­midt, Google’s ex­ec­u­tive chair­man, an­titrust of­fi­cial Joaquin Al­mu­nia said Tues­day that “we have sub­stan­tially re­duced our dif­fer­ences.”

“I now ex­pect Google to come for­ward with a de­tailed com­mit­ment text in Jan­uary 2013,” said Al­mu­nia, the EU com­pe­ti­tion com­mis­sioner.

The meet­ing be­tween Al­mu­nia and Sch­midt came as U.S. reg­u­la­tors ap­peared to be back­ing off what had ini­tially been one of the cen­ter­pieces of an an­titrust in­ves­ti­ga­tion on both sides of the At­lantic. Early on, reg­u­la­tors fo­cused on a ques­tion that drilled to the core of Google’s busi­ness model: whether its pop­u­lar Web search en­gine thwarted com­pe­ti­tion by fa­vor­ing the com­pany’s ser­vices in pre­sent­ing re­sults of search queries.

Re­cent ac­counts of the U.S. pro­ceed­ings in­di­cate of­fi­cials are no longer press­ing the search-rank­ing is­sue. But Al­mu­nia is ev­i­dently still hold­ing Google ac­count­able on that. He said Tues­day that the com­pany in­di­cated it would make changes in “the way in which Google’s ver­ti­cal search ser­vices are dis­played within gen­eral search re­sults as com­pared to ser­vices of com- pe­ti­tors.”

The other ar­eas in which Al­mu­nia ex­pected to reach a deal in­cluded how Google uses and dis­plays con­tent from other com­pa­nies in its search tool, and re­stric­tions Google places on ad­ver­tis­ers. Any con­ces­sions of­fered by Google would be tested in the mar­ket­place to as­sess their ac­cept­abil­ity to other com­pa­nies, Al­mu­nia said.

If Al­mu­nia ac­cepts a set­tle­ment of­fer, Google would avoid a pos­si­ble fine of as much as 10 per­cent of its an­nual global rev­enue, about $37.9 bil­lion last year. It would also avoid a guilty find­ing that could re­strict its ac­tiv­i­ties in Europe.

Ex­actly what con­ces­sions on search ser­vices can be wrung from Google re­mained an open ques­tion Tues­day, although an­titrust ex­perts agreed the EU has more lever­age than the U.S.

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