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EC Seeks More Concessions from Google as Consumer Groups Reject Search Giant’s Proposal

Joaquín Almunia, the European Union’s top official responsible for enforcing competition law, said this week Google could still face formal charges for violating competition law over its practices in search and search advertising, and that the European Commission will ask Google to strengthen its proposed commitments to change the practices under review if the search giant is to avoid a formal case.

According to The New York Times, Almunia said the market test to gather public feedback on the effectiveness of Google’s proposed commitments, which was due to end this week, will run one month longer than originally planned.

“We will ask Google, probably, I cannot anticipate this formally, but almost 100 percent, we will ask Google: You should improve your proposals,” Almunia said, the Times reported.

In response, a Google spokesman said its proposal “clearly addresses the four areas of concern that were raised” by the commission, and the company will continue to “work with the commission to settle this case.”

Regarding Google’s proposal, which was met with initial skepticism when it was released by the Commission on April 25, two consumer groups have offered further critical analyses.

BEUC The European Consumer Organisation issued a six-page public response to the market test of how the proposal’s provisions run contrary to EU case law, will continue to mislead consumers, further limit competitors and fall short of the non-discriminatory principle. The group’s response said Google’s proposal failed a basic test of fairness:

“Overall, the remedies proposed by Google fall short of meeting the even-handed principle, according to which Google should be obliged to hold all services, including its own, to exactly the same standards, using the same crawling, indexing, ranking, display and penalty algorithms … It is important that Google is obliged to use an objective, non-discriminatory mechanism to rank and display all search results, including any links to Google products.”

U.S.-based Consumer Watchdog released a two-page letter to the Commission outlining its objection that Google’s proposal would allow it to continue to “harm consumer welfare, stifle innovation and restrict competition in Internet search services.” The group also said Google’s proposal should be rejected:

“Allowing Google to continue promoting its own services and demoting those of rivals, but requiring Google to label its own services does nothing but enshrine the uncompetitive status quo.”

The public interest group also echoed BEUC’s call for Google to begin treating its own products the same way it treats all other sites:

“Google must hold all services – especially its own – to exactly the same standards, using the same web crawling, indexing, ranking, display and penalty algorithms.”

While few, if any, groups have come out in support of Google’s proposed settlement to the Commission’s investigation, more are agreeing with the position that FairSearch has always taken. The most effective remedy to Google’s harms to consumers and competition would be to require the search giant to apply the same policy to ranking and displaying Google’s specialized services as it applies to all other sites.