The European Commission (EC) today gave backing to new proposals from Google, putting to rest accusations of anti-competitive behaviour on company's search sites.
In a European Parliament hearing, Joaquín Almunia, vice president of the European Commission responsible for Competition Policy, outlined the commitments made by Google and claimed he believed they went far enough to allay fears around the fairness of Google search.
The investigation into Google’s business practices began in November 2010, but it took until March 2013 for the EC to formally tell the US company about its concerns over anti-trust rules.
The EC took issue with four of the company's practices: favourable treatment of Google services over its competitors when using its search engine, the use of original content from third parties in its own services, conditions on publishers stopping them advertising Google competitors and contract stipulations stopping publishers using the same format for their Google advertising on competing search sites.
“These four business practices are all liable to harm consumers as they will likely have less choice of innovative services,” said Almunia. “On each of the four, we believe there is a strong case for action under our antitrust rules.”
He admitted this was the first time the competition commission had investigated online search companies and the fast-moving nature of the industry brought its own challenges. Alumnia also conceded he could not impose new algorithms or prevent Google from improving its services.
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However, through anti-trust legislation, the commission would be able to force the firm to make “legally binding commitments which resolve our concerns".
These commitments were initially sought out in April but Google failed to meet the standards both of the EC and of the wider industry, so in July Alumnia asked the firm to improve its proposals significantly.
After negotiations that ran up until yesterday the commissioner today said he was pleased with Google's proposals. They included making rival links more visible on the search pages, the ability for competitors to put their logos on the results, a new auction process to bid for the highest ranking for specific search terms and a commitment to no longer include contract clauses, limiting what publishers can do with rival firms.
The EC also said an independent monitoring trustee would be put in place to ensure these commitments were acted upon.
“We have reached a key moment in this case,” said Alumnia. “Following the first market test, I had serious doubts whether it was possible to continue the route towards a commitment decision. I expressed my opinion to Google and in public.”
“Now, with the significant improvements on the table, I think we have the possibility to work again and seek to find an effective solution based on a decision under Article 9 of the Antitrust Regulation.”
A full draft of the proposals will be finalised in the coming weeks and will be sent to complainants to ensure they approve. If it goes through and Google breaks its promises, the EC can fine the firm hundreds of millions of euros.
Alumnia concluded: “European users want undistorted competition and choice in online search and search advertising. They want it now and, if possible, deserve it now, and not after many years of litigation.”
Last week French data watchdog CNIL threatened to impose sanctions on Google for failing to comply with privacy policies in Europe by allowing its different sites to collate user data without the user being informed.