Labeling results not enough to get Google off antitrust hook, say rivals

Reports say that Google has offered to settle an EU antitrust case by labelling its own services when it returns them as search results

Google has proposed a settlement of its antitrust case to the European Commission that involves labeling its own services when it presents them in search results, news reports said Wednesday.

But complainants in the case have said that this is a poor excuse for a remedy, as the real issue is where competitors results are placed in the search rankings.

Google is accused of using its search service to direct users to its own services, and of reducing the visibility of competing websites and services. The Commission extended the case into a full investigation to determine whether Google unfairly penalizes rivals in November last year.

Complaints were first lodged by French search engine eJustice.fr and the U.K.-based Foundem in 2010. But 14 other companies have since followed their lead including Microsoft-owned German price comparison site Ciao, Dutch football website Elfvoetbal, French companies Dealdujour.pro and Twenga, British online mapping company Streetmap and online travel sites Expedia and Tripadvisor.

These complainants would like to see Google subject its in-house services to the same search criteria as those applied to other sites. More than 95 per cent of Internet searches in Europe are via Google.

According to a report in the Financial Times newspaper on Wednesday, Google has proposed putting its brand on search results returned from its own maps, stock quotes, airline flight details or other in-house services.

However the Commission is also investigating allegations that Google may have copied travel and restaurant reviews from competing sites without their permission (so-called 'scraping' of content) and that its contractual restrictions may prevent advertisers from moving their online campaigns to rival search engines. It therefore seems unlikely that labeling alone would satisfy Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia, although it could form part of a package of remedies.

If a solution isn't found, the European Commission could restrict Google's business activities in Europe and fine the company up to 10 percent of its annual global revenue (US$37.9 billion last year).

Google also faces a separate Commission investigation into its privacy policy. Meanwhile U.S. regulators will be watching closely as the search giant is also under investigation there.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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