The third time may be the charm. According to Reuters Google is (once again) “close to settling a three-year antitrust probe by European regulators after it offered ‘much better’ concessions” to the European Commission (EC). However Google has been here before.
Two previous antitrust settlements were strenuously opposed and thus defeated by Google critics and competitors. As part of that lobbying campaign several sponsored studies were issued, which uniformly found the core of Google’s settlement proposals — prominently showing links to rivals’ results — would have little or no impact on user behavior.
According to the Reuters report an EC decision “is expected in the next few days or in a couple of weeks at the latest.” A key factor, said the article, is that regulators will not give Google’s rivals the opportunity to provide feedback and thereby object to the settlement terms. Apparently there will be no “market test” this time.
This will likely cause an uproar among anti-Google lobbyists such as FairSearch.org and similar organizations. The EC can agree to a settlement over the objections of Google competitors and critics. However any settlement wouldn’t prevent or stop civil litigation to my knowledge.
If the report is accurate it would potentially save Google billions in fines that could have been unilaterally imposed by the EC.
Postscript: The FairSearch Europe organization issued the following statement in response to the Reuters report:
Reuters reported on Wednesday that Commissioner Joaquin Almunia is weighing a new proposal from Google to address anti-trust concerns he raised in May 2012. The report also says that the Commission may move forward without consulting anyone outside the Commission. FairSearch has no independent confirmation of the story.
Google’s first two proposals were rejected by Commissioner Joaquin Almunia as a result of the knowledge gained through market tests (including actual testing of the likely effects of the proposals), and it is vital that Google’s third try also be subject to broad consultation.
Without actual testing of the likely effects of Google’s latest proposal, any assessment of it would just be speculative. The concerns raised by the Commission’s investigation are too important to consumers for them to be addressed by a settlement that is not thoroughly vetted.