Google Complaints Shouldn't Derail EU Pact, Almunia Says

More complaints targeting Google Inc. shouldn’t derail the European Union’s plans to clinch a settlement with the world’s largest search-engine company, the EU’s antitrust chief said in a letter to colleagues.

Joaquin Almunia defended his plans to settle a three-and-half-year probe into Google in a letter to fellow commissioners seen by Bloomberg News. He told them the current investigation into Google’s search engine couldn’t investigate issues such as net neutrality and copyright infringement, which are outside the scope of his powers to police antitrust violations, or other products such as Google Plus and YouTube.

Almunia is seeking support from colleagues who must approve his plan to finalize the Google pact, which would conclude the investigation into alleged discrimination in search results without imposing a fine. Other commissioners at a February meeting criticized his handling of the probe, started in November 2010, people said at the time.

Complaints filed in recent months by French and German publishers, Deutsche Telekom AG, an images industry group and an advertising platform “either came too late” to be added to the current probe “or raise concerns on practices and markets that lie beyond” the scope of antitrust regulators, Almunia said in the letter.

Adding these complaints to the EU’s search case “would have produced unnecessary delays” or risked “decisions of lower quality,” Almunia said. While regulators “might open new proceedings” in these issues, he said he hopes to finalize the investigation into allegations that Google discriminates against rivals in its search results before he leaves office later this year.

‘Convincing Evidence’

Antoine Colombani, a spokesman for the European Commission, declined to comment on the letter to commissioners.

Almunia left open the possibility of tweaking Google’s commitments, saying he “may reflect on possible ways to improve them” if he receives convincing evidence from companies that made complaints.

Almunia said another investigation into Google’s mobile operating system Android is “still in its early stages and formal proceedings have not yet been formally opened.” Regulators are currently seeking information from smartphone manufacturers, mobile network operators and developers of operating systems and mobile applications, he said.

EU regulators have sent letters to companies that lodged complaints over Google search to explain why the proposed settlement answers antitrust concerns, including why it doesn’t cover, the company’s main search page which the EU says isn’t widely used in Europe. There are now 20 recognized complainants in the case, Almunia said.

Rival Links

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

Google said earlier this year that the planned changes will give rival services “significant prominence and valuable screen space on our search results pages.”

Google declined to comment on the letter today.

Almunia also had to defend himself last month 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.

The EU antitrust chief said he’s also “looking very closely into how Google and other multinational companies comply with the legal tax framework.”

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