Almunia faces GRILLING from MEPs over FAILED Google settlement deal

Politicos to demand tough action against ad giant's 'search dominance'

Europe’s competition chief will face tough questions from MEPs next week over his failed attempts to reach an antitrust settlement deal with Google, which fell far short of sanctions being meted out to the ad giant.

Joaquin Almunia - who will leave his post by the end of October - said in Florence, Italy, on Friday that Google was working on yet another revised offer in an effort to avoid a fine of up to 10 per cent of the company's worldwide annual turnover.

Google, in what is now an unprecedented move for Brussels' antitrust wing, has now submitted three proposed sets of remedies to attempt to nullify accusations that the multinational abused its dominant position in the search biz in Europe, where it commands around 90 per cent of the market. Google, it is alleged, gives preference to its own services, scrapes news sites and imposes anti-competitive terms on advertisers.

In earlier proposals to the commissioner, Google promised to cease the latter two activities and offered to present three rival links for every query that promotes Google’s own services. Those were planned to be separated from Google’s products and carry clear labels.

Almunia agreed in the summer that Google's latest offer was satisfactory. He wrote to his fellow commissioners on 11 June, urging them to accept the planned settlement deal. However, following criticism from many quarters, the competition chief is now back-pedalling and it seems unlikely he will be able to resolve the issue before his tenure runs out.

Although Almunia has been keen to pursue a so-called Article 9 settlement, he could still go down the route of punitive measures. Under Article 9, the European Commission can accept a set of commitments from a company to resolve a complaint, which then becomes legally binding. But that company is not required to admit any wrongdoing under such a settlement deal.

Google spokesman Al Verney said yesterday that the company was still working on reaching a resolution.

At this stage, however, the task will almost certainly fall to the next competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, who is the former Danish economy minister.

Meanwhile, MEPs Ramon Tremosa and Andreas Schwab welcomed the long awaited change of direction and promised they would put difficult questions to Almunia when he appears before the European Parliament’s economic and monetary affairs committee next Tuesday. ®

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