Too Little, Too Late? ICOMP, Competitors Prepare To Fight Google’s European Antitrust Settlement Offer

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The European Commission today asked Google’s competitors and others working in the Internet industry in the region for feedback on proposals made by Google to settle its years-long antitrust investigation. Swiftly, ICOMP, one of the chief lobbying organizations fighting against the search giant, has already issued a preliminary response: Google’s commitments may be “too little, too late.”

“It is clear that mere labelling is not any kind of solution to the competition concerns that have been identified,” ICOMP notes in a statement. “Google should implement the same ranking policy to all websites. This should include their own vertical services which currently have their ranking unfairly manipulated to appear at or near the top of search results.” ICOMP includes companies like Microsoft, football’s Premier League as well as Streetmap, which is currently suing Google in the UK over its search practices.

Google, meanwhile, remains in a moving-ahead state: “We continue to work cooperatively with the European Commission,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The European Commission notes that currently Google controls over 90% of the search market across the European Economic Area.

Although Google’s proposals had not been made public until today, there have been several reports over the last couple of weeks about what Google would be offering in the proposal. It appears that these were on target. The proposals cover a number of areas that have been investigated, from concerns from so-called “vertical search engines” (those specialising in certain areas like mapping, travel or comparative insurance quotes for example) to those of publishers. In a nutshell, here is what Google is offering to do over the next five years:

— label promoted links to its own specialised search services so that users can distinguish them from natural web search results,

– clearly separate these promoted links from other web search results by clear graphical features (such as a frame), and

– display links to three rival specialised search services close to its own services, in a place that is clearly visible to users;

– offer all websites the option to opt-out from the use of all their content in Google’s specialised search services, while ensuring that any opt-out does not unduly affect the ranking of those web sites in Google’s general web search results,

– offer all specialised search web sites that focus on product search or local search the option to mark certain categories of information in such a way that such information is not indexed or used by Google,

– provide newspaper publishers with a mechanism allowing them to control on a web page per web page basis the display of their content in Google News,

– no longer include in its agreements with publishers any written or unwritten obligations that would require them to source online search advertisements exclusively from Google, and

– no longer impose obligations that would prevent advertisers from managing search advertising campaigns across competing advertising platforms.

ICOMP’S response, so far, is a generic one but largely has to do with what Google is proposing in the area of search results, and its suggestion of labelling its own products more clearly. A source connected to one of the companies that is part of ICOMP told TechCrunch that the idea of relegating competitors to a special box featuring three results is not a good enough solution: “It takes attention away from the fact that Google is still putting more emphasis on its own products in its search results,” he said. “Google needs to give its own products the same weighting as those of others.”

He also takes issue with the timeframe of the current consultation. Competitors and others are being given a month to respond; effectively Google has had much longer to formulate its own proposals and technology for how it proposes to deal with the antitrust issue.

The Register, meanwhile, notes that Foundem, an ICOMP member that is one of the original companies bringing the case against Google to regulators, who is also suing Google in the UK, has also issued a preliminary statement criticising Google’s proposal.

“Instead of promising to end its abusive practices, Google’s proposal seems to offer a half-hearted attempt to dilute their anti-competitive effects, by labelling Google’s own services and throwing in some token links to competitors’ services alongside them,” said Shivaun Raff, CEO of Foundem.

The full statement from ICOMP is below. The EU’s memo asking for feedback can be found here. I have a feeling this is not the final chapter in this antitrust saga, which is already stretching into its third year.

Following weeks of speculation, we are pleased to see the publication of a market test notice and look forward to the opportunity to analyse and respond to Google’s proposal in a constructive manner. It is vital to ensure that the market test is thorough and robust and is not simply an exercise to “tick the boxes”.

As we have repeatedly said, it is very important to provide complainants and interested parties with the opportunity to review the proposals and offer their observations, including evidence to show how the proposals will play out in practice. Google has had some time to test the proposals and how they might affect user clicks. We believe complainants and others also have an important role to play not least because of the sectoral expertise they offer. However, they must be provided with enough information and time to make the detailed analysis that is required.

If the proposals don’t clearly set out non-discrimination principles and the means to deal with the restoration of effective competition, plus effective enforcement and compliance, it’s very difficult to see how they can be satisfactory. Commissioner Almunia has himself stated that returning competition to markets effectively destroyed by Google’s dominance and abuse of that position is the main aim of this investigation.

We will comment further once we have had an opportunity to evaluate the proposals in more detail but it is clear that mere labelling is not any kind of solution to the competition concerns that have been identified. Google should implement the same ranking policy to all websites. This should include their own vertical services which currently have their ranking unfairly manipulated to appear at or near the top of search results.