EU Antitrust Chief Casts Doubt on Google Deal Over Rivals' Links

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2014 New York Times News Service

BRUSSELS — The European Union’s antitrust chief said Tuesday that he might yet take a tougher stance toward Google in a long-running case that he and the company have been in talks to settle for more than a year.

The announcement, by Joaquín Almunia, is a potential blow for Google, which reached a tentative deal with Almunia in February by agreeing to display rivals’ links more prominently in its search results. Google has been trying to resolve the three-year case and avoid a potential fine of up to $5 billion.

But whether the announcement was an indication of a new hard line by Almunia or a diplomatic nod to the company’s many critics in Europe was not clear. In any case, any action would still be months away.

Companies critical of Google’s business practices, as well as prominent members of the French and German governments, have assailed the proposed settlement as doing too little to improve competition in online searches and advertising.

Almunia said at a news conference on Tuesday that he still wanted to settle the case. But he also said he could file formal charges against the company if a further round of feedback about the settlement from 19 groups and companies, including Microsoft and publishers in Germany, is persuasively negative.

“If, because of the arguments of the complainants, we consider that the proposals that we have on the table are not enough, we will need to decide on the next steps,” said Almunia, who added that he would make the decision whether to send formal charges after the summer break.

The proposed settlement with Google has come under fire ahead of the elections for the European Parliament, which conclude on Sunday, in which the might of U.S. technology companies like Google has become a highly politicized issue.

This month, Martin Schulz, a German Socialist candidate to become the next head of the European Commission, threatened to unwind Almunia’s settlement with Google. He said he wanted European technology startups to have a better chance of entering the market.

And in criticism that came to light this week, the French economy minister, Arnaud Montebourg, and his German counterpart, Sigmar Gabriel, wrote to Almunia to express their concern about the settlement and to push him to demand more concessions from the company.

“Since the start of this procedure, we share entirely the deep concerns of the companies that have complained,” the ministers wrote to Almunia, according to a copy of the letter seen by The International New York Times. The letter was written this month, though the copy did not show which day it was sent.

“We consider that certain essential aspects should be improved” in the way Google displays links to rival services when users conduct searches, wrote the ministers, who, like Schulz, are Socialists. If those improvements still did not satisfy Google’s critics, the commission should consider sending the company formal charges, they wrote.

Google has also been criticized by Deutsche Telekom, the German telecommunications giant, and from the Open Internet Project, which represents a number of European companies, including the German publisher Axel Springer.

Almunia said both Deutsche Telekom and the Open Internet Project had filed new antitrust complaints against Google in recent days.

Asked at the news conference whether Google might yet be fined, Almunia replied, “Who knows.”