The European Commission's competition boss Joaquin Almunia - whose term of office comes to an end in November - insisted today that it was unnecessary to request a further market test from Google's rivals over its alleged abuse of dominance in search.
It came after Brussels' vice president confirmed that his office was working on a settlement deal with Google, following a tweaked offer to the EC from the ad giant that Almunia said addressed all of the concerns he had laid out in the more than three-year-long antitrust case.
The 18 formal complainants have been told by the Commission that they will now have the opportunity to provide feedback on Almunia's decision, before he makes the settlement with Google in the next few months that will be legally binding for five years.
But the letters being posted to Google foes including British price comparison website Foundem is purely a procedural move and is unlikely to have any impact on the case.
Almunia told reporters today:
It is not possible to avoid this step and I don't want to avoid this step - it's a very important step in the procedure ... After three years of the invesigation I am pretty confident that my acceptance ... has solid ground. I think I know the arguments of the complainants and I think we've solved the arguments.
The commissioner added: "If I receive very, very strong arguments that revises my own decision ... I am ready ... I am a very flexible person."
He then quipped: I never thought that I would become an expert in the search business - maybe I'll pass the exam now."
But rivals in the case, including Microsoft, have complained that such a settlement - without a third-party review of Google's most recent package of concessions - "is a massive failure."
Lobby group ICOMP, which has repeatedly called on Almunia to take a strong stance against Google, said today:
Without a third party review, Almunia risks having the wool pulled over his eyes by Google. Having initially welcomed earlier proposals, effective market tests demonstrated their fatal flaws and the commission rightly rejected them.
Why has Almunia chosen to ignore the expert advice of the market on this occasion? We do not believe Google has any intention of holding themselves to account on these proposals, and given the catastrophic effects on the online ecosystem that a proposal that doesn’t hit the mark will have, we would implore Commissioner Almunia to allow a full third party review of their submission as the very least the Commission can do in this landmark case.
An unnamed complainant in the case, meanwhile, openly attacked the deal.
"What an utter disaster. It remains to be lipstick on a pig," the source told The Register.
"They will just informally ask around among the official complainants. How nice of them. So the public won’t see the proposal. The European competition commissioner should take some words of wisdom to heart that [Google chairman] Eric Schmidt himself gave once to the world: 'If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place'."
Almunia today hit back at suggestions that the Article 9 route he had taken was bad for competition in the search market. He simply said: "The mission of the Commission is to protect competition." ®