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Google and EU locked in antitrust deliberations

In an effort to avoid an antitrust crackdown across Europe, Google has offered some solutions to appease regulators - including the addition of links to rival services in its search results.

The European Commission is now soliciting comments on Google's proposal, which it will take into account during its analysis. "If the Commission concludes that [Google's suggestions] address its four competition concerns, it may decide to make them legally binding on Google," the commission said today.

The EU probe dates back to November 2010, when the commission opened an antitrust investigation into Google over allegations that the company had abused its dominant position in online search. Google issued its response in July 2012 and has long denied any wrongdoing.

Last month, however, the commission formally informed Google that it might violate EU antitrust rules in four specific ways: prioritising its own services in search results; using third-party content on its own services without permission; as well as restrictive rules for AdWords's customers and their ability to transfer campaigns to rival services.

As a result, Google has served up some ideas for how it might ease those concerns and avoid antitrust action. Specifically, the proposal says Google will:

  • Clearly label promoted links to Google-owned content.
  • Separate promoted links from other Web search results with graphical features like a frame.
  • Clearly display links to three rival, specialized search services.
  • Allow websites to opt out of having their content used on Google's services without the fear of having all links pulled from Google search results (which Yelp complained about in 2011)
  • Let websites that focus on product search or local search mark certain categories of information in such a way that such information is not indexed or used by Google.
  • Let publishers control whether their content appears on Google News on a per web page basis.
  • Ban Google from requiring that publishers only source online search ads from Google.
  • Allow advertisers to manage search advertising campaigns across competing advertising platforms.

The proposals would cover the European Union, and Google would be subject to independent audits to make sure they are in compliance.

The US conducted a similar investigation, but in January, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) did not find that Google unfairly manipulated its search results to highlight its own products and demote competing firms.

The FTC did, however, take issue with Google's practice of "scraping" content from rivals like Yelp and passing it off as its own. Going forward, sites like Yelp can opt out of having their content scraped in the US without fear of being pulled from Google search results.

Meanwhile, Google also agreed to remove restrictions that made it difficult for AdWords customers to coordinate online advertising campaigns across multiple platforms.

How can the FTC and the EU reach different conclusions about Google's activity? In a statement, the commission said that "the factual and legal environments are different in the US and Europe."

"In particular, Bing and Yahoo represent a substantial alternative to Google in Web search in the USA: their combined market share is around 30 per cent," the EU said. "In contrast, Google has been holding market shares well above 90 per cent in most European countries for a number of years. Websites therefore rely more on traffic from Google in Europe than in the USA. Given the resulting commercial significance of Google for specialised search services, the way Google presents its web search results therefore has a much more significant impact on users and on the competitive process in Europe than it does in the USA."