Google Rivals Seek Almunia U-Turn in Talks Over EU Pact

Google Inc.’s opponents are lining up for a last chance to change the mind of Joaquin Almunia, the European Union’s antitrust chief, as he edges toward a possible settlement with the owner of the world’s biggest search engine.

Companies, including Microsoft Corp. and Expedia Inc., that lodged complaints against Google for discriminating against competing sites have taken turns meeting Almunia’s Brussels officials over the past two weeks about a proposed pact that many of them are keen to thwart.

Regulators asked what parts of Google’s settlement offer were worst and “if we had any suggestions how to improve them,” said Thomas Hoeppner, a lawyer for German publishers and other companies that have asked the EU to investigate Google, of his meetings with the EU last month. “Such questions would imply a general willingness to reconsider the proposals.”

While Almunia repeated last month his willingness to tweak Google’s offer to show rival services if companies that have complained to the antitrust authority make compelling arguments, he hasn’t signaled whether he has doubts on the draft accord. “I don’t believe” the criticism will lead to a U-turn, he said in March.

The EU has met with complainants for last-ditch talks before sending them letters to explain why it plans to reject their complaints and accept Google’s settlement offer. The companies can respond before the EU takes a final decision on the pact later this year.

Settlement ‘Discontent’

Al Verney, a Google spokesman in Brussels, declined to comment on the EU talks with complainants.

“The commission has throughout the investigation in the Google case been in regular contact with complainants and has held meetings with them upon request,” Antoine Colombani, a spokesman for Almunia, said by e-mail.

Under the terms of its proposed settlement, Google would dodge EU fines and any finding that it discriminated against competing sites.

The commission said in February it provisionally accepted the company’s offer to show rival links next to its own specialized searches, such as Google Shopping. Competitors would pay for a spot in a shaded box on some of Google’s search pages.

Data Privacy

The changes will give rival services “significant prominence and valuable screen space on our search results pages,” Google said at the time.

Google is separately wrestling with new privacy requirements after a court ruled last month that Europeans can ask the search engine to remove some personal information. EU data watchdogs discussed the ramifications of the court decision on the so-called right to be forgotten during talks in Brussels today and yesterday.

Critics of the draft EU settlement are hoping that growing pressure of Almunia’s plans to settle his highest-profile case will change his mind.

The Spaniard had to defend himself in a letter to French and German ministers and against criticism from the chief executive officer of Axel Springer SE, who said Europe’s largest newspaper publisher was “afraid” of Google. He’s also faced opposition from other EU commissioners who will decide on the final deal.

Pact ‘Discontent’

“The commission is being made increasingly aware of discontent surrounding the state of the proposals,” said John Phelan, a spokesman for consumer advocacy group BEUC, which has filed a complaint against Google. “What Google has proffered would remedy little that the investigation set out to solve.”

Michael Weber, of Hot Map and Euro-Cities, two German online mapping firms, said his meeting with regulators was “the first time” he’d had an in-depth discussion of his two complaints with EU investigators. The EU didn’t “fully understand the significance of maps and they put this issue aside,” he said, and officials “didn’t talk to complainants much or at all and were very close” even “too close to Google” over the past three years.

The talks last month were “the first time we got the feeling” the EU was engaging with the complainants, said Hoeppner.

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