According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the top two US and European antitrust regulators will meet in Europe next week to compare notes and discuss potential outcomes. Both are negotiating with Google to settle antitrust claims that would avoid formal legal action.
The FTC’s Chairman Jon Leibowitz will meet with the EU’s Joaquin Almunia. The claims against Google on both sides of the Atlantic are similar, though not identical. In addition, European and American antitrust laws are different though they express the same overarching principles.
The WSJ reported that any concessions made by Google in Europe could give the FTC more leverage if it chooses to wait until the Europeans act:
Earlier in the probes, it appeared possible that the European regulator would announce the outcome of its probe before the FTC made a final decision. That timeline could benefit U.S. regulators because Europe has broader competition laws, meaning the FTC could gain from any concessions Google made in Europe.
Europe’s antitrust laws are more flexible than those in the US, where the burden of proof in any legal case would be higher for the FTC.
Recently the FTC has signaled it may not pursue the so-called “search bias” claims that go to the heart of Google’s business and may instead focus on several other areas. The Europeans earlier this year outlined “four areas of concern” (plus Android) that they expect Google to address.
In contrast to the apparent FTC posture, Europe’s Almunia has not signaled he’s shying away from the “search bias” issue. However a remedy that involves Google simply labeling its “own” results would likely not satisfy critics.
The WSJ also points out that notwithstanding the advantages of letting Europe act first, the FTC may be forced to act sooner because a pro-antitrust enforcement commissioner is leaving and will be replaced by one less inclined toward legal action against Google:
The FTC is on a tighter time frame. One of its commissioners who has generally favored active antitrust enforcement, J. Thomas Rosch, will soon depart the agency. The nominee to replace him, Joshua D. Wright, is expected to favor a more conservative approach that might make him less inclined to support a suit against Google.
Leibowitz and Almunia will probably discuss what concessions each is likely to gain and the outlook for any legal action against Google. There may even be some tactical coordination between the two officials. Neither regulator wants to bring a formal case but neither can “politically” just walk away without some meaningful concessions from Google.