European Publishers, Others Slam Google On “Abusive” Practices, Ask EC To Reject Google Proposal

It may be back to the drawing board for Google on the European antitrust front: hundreds of publishers and publishing trade associations today are coming out in force to ask the European Commission and its Vice President Joaquín Almunia to “reject outright” Google’s draft remedies, which Google submitted to the EC as its offer for rebalancing competition in search and other online products where it is dominant in the region. The statement put out today, by the European Publishers’ Council, comes on the same day that other would-be Google competitors, including online mapping and travel companies, as well as the Microsoft-backed Fairsearch consortium, are also expected to call for much deeper scrutiny of Google and a rejection of its proposals.

Google originally published its draft remedies on April 25, which included suggestions for how it would offer competitors some concessions such as labelling Google’s own links more clearly (a more detailed list of the remedies Google proposed is below). Google competitors were already stirring with negative responses early on, but Almunia, who oversees antitrust and other competition issues, gave them had until June 27 to respond formally. What’s coming out today appears to be a concerted effort to coordinate those negative responses — claiming Google’s suggestions do not go far enough — for maximum effect.

We will be listening into the Fairsearch-led press conference later today and will update the post with more as we learn it.

The EPC includes big names like the FT, News International, Guardian Media Group, Axel Springer, Thomson Reuters and Reed Elsevier, but also more regional players. Among those coming out against Google, for example, is Dr. Hubert Burda, president of the German magazine publishers’ association VDZ. He echoes the basic line that Google needs to go back to the drawing board.

“If Google does not come up with fundamentally improved proposals very soon, we call on the Commission to use its full legal powers, including an immediate Statement of Objections with effective remedies,” he said in a statement. “Fair and non-discriminatory search with equal criteria for all websites is an essential prerequisite for the prosperous development of the European media and technology sector.”

As we reported before, the proposals as Google has made them to date include the following:

  • 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.

It looks like the approach that competitors are taking is to take each of these suggestions, line by line, and show how they are not feasible. For example, on the suggestion on opting out from specialized searches (number three in the list below), the publishers’ group responds: “In other words, ‘if you don’t want us to steal your content, you need to make sure we can’t find it.’ An opt out from a 90% dominant player means of course that you become invisible to readers and is no option at all.” The full paper (in PDF form) detailing the EPC’s objections is here.

It’s almost certain that the uniform rejection will mean that this will progress into another stage of give and take for both sides. We are reaching out to all the parties, including Google, for further comment, and will update this post as we learn more.

Update: Google has now responded, pointing me to a blog post published late yesterday, perhaps written to pre-empt today’s statements. “Our proposals are meaningful and comprehensive, providing additional choice and information while also leaving room for future innovation,” writes Kent Walker, SVP and general counsel for Google. “As we’ve always said, we build Google for users, not websites. And we don’t want to hamper the very innovations that people like best about Google’s services. That’s why we focused on addressing the Commission’s specific concerns, and we think we did a pretty good job.” Google engineering SVP Amit Singhal also reiterated these points in an interview with the FT, claiming that more regulations would hurt innovation.

We’ll see if the Commission agrees; competitors clearly do not. At the same time that this scrutiny is swirling, Google has also been handed a victory of sorts, with the European courts determining that it is not responsible for deleting sensitive data in search results from third-party web pages.

Update 2: Microsoft, one of the other objecting parties and no stranger itself to EU fines over anticompetitive practices, says that it is unlikely to publish any statements until after the response deadline passes on June 27. Others have been approaching me with other specific objections around Google’s proposals: “Google says that users want answers not links,” one person writes, referring to when Google includes direct information results among search links. “I assume that this is their explanation for putting their results on top of the search results. One thing they fail to mention is that probably all competitors would also be able to provide direct answers, if Google just let them. Users might want direct answers as part of the search results, but they surely don’t want them to come only from Google. They want the most relevant results.”

Update 3: Later in the day, six organizations — ProSiebenSat1; CEPIC (picture agency consortium); Hot-map; Streemap; travel services association ETTSA and the German magazine publishers group VDZ — came together for a press briefing to give their own opinions on Google. It was more of the same, with little in the way of debate at this point.

Among them, the CEPIC noted that it was not a part of the first complaint but decided to come in during the response process. On the point of opting out: “This will have an impact on all stakeholders on the Internet,” said Sylvie Fodor, CEPIC’s Executive Director. “We are worried by the developments of Google in the last couple of years and thought it was time to take a position…For content providers of any kind opting out is not a remedy when the company in question is the only search engine on the Internet. If you opt out of Google, you are opting out of the internet, and this is not acceptable.”

Christoph Klenner, Secretary General of ETTSA, described Google’s package as it stands now as “Doomsday” for its competitors.

Again, there are definitely different aspects to this argument — yes, Google dominates search, but what is the best way of handling that and how deeply should regulators get involved in creating that change — but the pretty loud and unified voice against Google right now seems to at the very least point to this debate and issue being far from concluded.