Joaquín Almunia, the European commissioner for competition, has written to the chief executive of Google, saying that he is concerned that the US internet company has abused its dominant position.
The decision follows a European Commission investigation dating back to November 2010 and involving more than a dozen complaints.
The Commission’s preliminary conclusions from that investigation offer the chance for Google to avoid the prospect of a huge fine – which it could receive if found guilty of abusing its dominant position – if it can come up with suitable remedies “within a matter of weeks”.
Almunia said that he wanted to give Google “an opportunity to offer remedies to address the concerns” identified in the investigation’s preliminary conclusions. He said that a “quick resolution” was always preferable to lengthy proceedings and that Google “has repeatedly expressed to me its willingness to discuss any concerns that the Commission might have”.
Almunia said that he had concerns in four areas:
• Google’s “preferential treatment” to results from its own searches in specialist areas, known as ‘vertical search’, such as for news or products, compared with those for competing services;
• The way Google “copies content” from competing vertical search services and uses it in its own results which could damage rival sites, such as those offering restaurant or travel listings;
• Agreements between Google and partners on the websites of which Google delivers search advertisements that lead to “exclusivity”, requiring them to obtain search advertisements from Google;
• Restrictions that Google puts on the portability of online search advertising campaigns from its AdWords platform to the platforms of competitors.
Almunia said that he had written to Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief operating officer, detailing the four concerns and offering the company the opportunity to come up with remedies that, if suitable, would avoid the need for an even more lengthy investigation which could lead to fines and the imposition of remedies.
Since the start of the Commission’s investigation, Google has been keen to insist that it did not believe that its behaviour broke the EU’s competition rules. However, it has also said that it remains open to discussion with the Commission about how improvements can be made.
In a statement, Google said that it had started to look at the Commission’s arguments.
“We disagree with the conclusions but we’re happy to discuss any concerns they might have,” said Al Verney, a Google spokesman. “Competition on the web has increased dramatically in the last two years since the Commission started looking at this and the competitive pressures Google faces are tremendous.
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