Would Europe “Ban” Google Universal Search Results?

google-eu-featuredAs Google’s critics and rivals in Europe become increasingly vocal and aggressive in their campaign against the company’s proposed antitrust settlement, the European Commission (EC) has some egg on its face.

EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia negotiated the current settlement with Google over a period of months. The specific provisions, including the controversial “rival links” concept, were entirely known to him and colleagues when the proposal was released for “market testing” third-party reaction and comment.

It was also entirely predictable that FairSearch.org and other anti-Google groups would reject the proposals as insufficient. I have been informed and led to believe that Almunia and the EC have the authority to simply accept and finalize the settlement over the objections of critics.

However, that doesn’t seem to be happening, and Almunia now finds himself in a “political bind.”

It’s strange that Almunia is acting surprised by the market’s reaction. Quoted in a Bloomberg article Almunia also appears to be distancing himself from the settlement proposal and seeking to mollify critics with suggestions that if there aren’t more Google concessions the EC could ultimately “ban” some of Google’s practices:

“Google has to decide whether it improves the planned solutions it presented,” Almunia said. “Depending on Google’s response and the market test I have to decide whether we reach an accord,” he said.

“Working with the hypothesis that it’s possible to reach a deal, it will probably be reached by the end of this year.”

Without an agreement, the process toward a possible ban on some of Google’s actions “will probably extend until next year,” said Almunia.

The central issue is Google’s ability to place “its own content” where it wants on the search results page. Google’s rivals and critics don’t want the company to be able to deliver maps, local results, products, flight information and other “vertical” content above “their” organic results.

While he may have the authority, Almunia doesn’t appear to have the political will to simply accept and impose the existing settlement. Google has said it believes its proposals are “meaningful and comprehensive.” The company will be reluctant to go much farther to accommodate its critics. But, the critics believe Google hasn’t made any concessions at all.

We’ll have to wait and see whether Google offers anything further. And if not, whether Almunia decides, inexplicably, to pursue a “ban” on some of Google’s universal/vertical search practices.

Related Topics: Google: Business Issues | Google: Critics | Google: International | Google: Legal | Legal: Antitrust | Top News

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • FrankReed

    I am trying to get my head around the apparent fact that Almunia thought Google’s ‘competitors’ would rubber stamp anything short of taking the search down. This is the trouble in trying to appear to be fair. While folks like FairSearch.org hide behind their name they don’t want fair, they want Google to be completely handcuffed so they (FairSearch participants) can use the engine to get their entitled piece of the pie. The whole EU process and set up is awful as far as I can tell. Regulate and control everything and expect people to play fair. That’s naive. If you are a true regulatory body you have to make hard decisions that everyone abides by, not simply put it out to ‘vote’ when it’s painfully obvious that everyone has their own agenda which is never going to be fair to their competitors. Regulators determine the boundaries, not referee fights.

  • Spann

    The commission can accept the agreement as is but competitors who think it’s inadequate can sue the commission to overturn it. Almunia is stuck between suing Google or being sued by dozens of European companies who don’t understand why the EU has sacrificed them for a US monopoly that many think doesn’t pay taxes, invades privacy and thumbs its nose at European law. He wants to find the middle to avoid either of those.

  • Spann

    And I think it’s not just competitors who can sue, it’s anyone who’s interested and includes all the content publishers – movie publishers, newspapers, TV stations, photographers and image agencies, soccer leagues, etc. – as well as the consumer protection groups that have come out against the settlement.

  • Jeff

    Your analogy is nonsense. What “Fair”Search is aiming for is equivalent to forcing Sony to put a different manufacturer’s electronics in its own packages just because 93% of the market prefers Sony. When I go to Google and search for [best fish and chips in london], I want suggestions on where to get fish and chips, not a link to TripAdvisor trying to answer the same question. If Google’s competitors think they can do better within a particular search vertical, let them compete on their own merit.

    What’s even worse is that Microsoft argues they should still be allowed to use their own vertical search products as they see fit within their own search results. Making Google go back to 10 blue links whereas Bing would still have the freedom to innovate the search results page would definitely give them a competitive advantage, but by no stretch of imagination is that fair.

  • Jeff

    “In this instance I’m talking about Google’s competitors as price comparison sites, hotel providers etc, not Bing. And ALL of those sites provide better results than Google’s equivalent results, yet Google’s comparison services are still placed above them.”

    So what exactly do you think Google is obligated to show when someone searches [best fish and chips in london]?

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