Cookie consent

We use cookies to improve your experience on this website. By continuing to browse our site you agree to our use of cookies. Tell me more | Cookie preferences

Brussels takes tough stance on Google

Regulators are concerned about Google's dominance in the web search sector.

Story highlights

  • Google will be forced to change the way it presents search results in Europe
  • Almunia: Google could face antitrust charges for "diverting traffic" to its own services
  • Comes after the Federal Trade Commission gave the all-clear to Google's search engine

Google will be forced to change the way it presents search results in Europe or face antitrust charges for "diverting traffic" to its own services, the EU's competition chief has said, laying out a sharply different approach from his US counterparts.

In contrast to the Federal Trade Commission, which has given the all-clear to Google's search engine, Joaquín Almunia vowed to prevent Google distorting choices for consumers and taking business from rivals.

"We are still investigating, but my conviction is [Google] are diverting traffic," Mr Almunia told the Financial Times, referring to Google's preferential treatment of its own vertical search services.

"They are monetising this kind of business, the strong position they have in the general search market and this is not only a dominant position, I think -- I fear -- there is an abuse of this dominant position," Europe's antitrust enforcer said.

His words mark a direct ultimatum to Google as talks on a pre-charge settlement enter a critical phase. They offer the most detailed public explanation of Brussels' concerns and hint at the likely shape of any deal, which would mark the first time Google has bowed to regulatory pressure on its core business.

Mr Almunia said his concern is "the way they present their own services" and that he was "not discussing the algorithm" -- the jealously guarded heart of Google's search engine.

This suggests that one element of the solution will be labelling when Google's in-house services -- such as maps, airline flight details or shopping comparison information -- are artificially given a higher billing than rivals. But other changes are also likely to apply to how Google services are displayed within general search results.

Any European limits on Google could hamper the sweeping ambition that chief executive Larry Page has set for the company to turn itself from a search engine that primarily displays links to other sites into a "knowledge engine" that answers users' questions directly with information plucked from Google's own services.

While Mr Almunia said Google showed a more constructive approach at a crunch meeting in December, he warned that he would be "obliged" to issue formal charges if its proposal -- expected this month -- is unsatisfactory. Google insists its services are "good for users and good for competition"; it would not be required to admit wrongdoing in any pre-charge settlement.

Google's opponents will welcome Mr Almunia's tougher line on search than the FTC. Even so, the concessions offered to Brussels are likely to fall short of what Microsoft and other complainants are pressing for. The competition commissioner said he was "not worried" by the threat of legal challenges.

Mr Almunia explained the rare divergence with Washington on Google by the differing legal standards for abuse of dominance, as well as Google's stronger position in Europe, where it handles more than 90 per cent of searches.

EU officials argue that while its objectives -- protecting consumer interests -- are the same, the legal standard for abuse of dominance is higher in the US, partly because of the greater potential for private damages suits.

On two other areas -- Google's unauthorised use of information on rival websites and alleged restrictions on moving ad campaigns to other search engines -- Mr Almunia is in agreement with the FTC findings. "Our conditions will not be weaker," he said.

Dismissing the idea the intervention will cause a rift with the US and trigger outrage at a European meddling with a US corporate titan, Mr Almunia said: "I have never received a single message coming from the other side of the Atlantic saying, 'hey, what are you doing?' Everyone knows this is global."

Mr Almunia said a separate and less advanced probe into Google's Android operating system will remain open and outside of the settlement.

He also praised the FTC's settlement with Google limiting the way it enforces patents and said it was "more or less" the kind of solution he was seeking in similar cases.

      CNN Business

    • An Iraqi worker adjusts a control valve at the Daura oil refinery on November 5, 2009 in Baghdad, Iraq. Iraq and a grouping of U.S and European oil companies Exxon Mobil Corp and Royal Dutch Shell PLC signed a $50 billion contract today to develop the West Qurna oilfield, two days after the Iraqi South Oil Company signed a technical service contract with Britain's BP and China's CNPC to develop the Rumaila oilfield. The Iraqi government is trying to attract foreign investment, especially in the oil sector, in hopes of reviving its war-torn economy. Iraq has the third largest oil reserve in the world but it is producing way below its potential. (Photo by Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images)

      Airstrikes, rebels seizing control of oil fields, plus a severe refugee crisis are a recipe for market panic. So why are Iraq oil prices stable?
    • A view of gloves and boots used by medical staff, drying in the sun, at a center for victims of the Ebola virus in Guekedou, on April 1, 2014. The viral haemorrhagic fever epidemic raging in Guinea is caused by several viruses which have similar symptoms -- the deadliest and most feared of which is Ebola. AFP PHOTO / SEYLLOU (Photo credit should read SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images)

      The biggest Ebola outbreak in history is taking its toll in Western Africa, hitting some of West Africa's most vulnerable economies.
    • People enter a casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, on April 18, 2009. Las Vegas is the most populus city in the US state of Nevada and internationally renowned major resort city for gambling, shopping, fine dining and entertainment. Las Vegas which bills itself as the �Entertainment Capital of the World� is famous for the number of casino resorts and associated entertainment. AFP PHOTO/Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

      Macau has overtaken Switzerland in the wealth stakes, being named the world's fourth richest territory by the World Bank.
    • spc marketplace middle east ata atmar a_00010015.jpg

      Saudi Arabian Bateel brand is best known for its delectable dates but it now has more than a dozen cafes and a new bakery in the works.
    • Vantablack designed by Surrey NanoSystems absorbs 99.96% of all light. It however will not be the solution to the creating the world's ultimate slimming black dress! A dress made out of this material would render the curves and contours of the human body invisible and would leave the wearer looking like 'two dimensional cardboard cut-out.'

      A British nanotech company has created what it says is the world's darkest material. It is so dark the human eye can't discern its shape and form.
    • Jibo robot is designed to be an organizer, educator and assist family members. CNN's Maggie Lake met him and says she was impressed with his skills.
    • A picture taken on March 15, 2014 shows children playing at the sprawling desert Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan near the border with Syria which provides shelter to around 100,000 Syrian refugees. Syrian refugees in the seven-square-kilometre (2.8-square-mile) Zaatari camp in Jordan fear that President Bashar al-Assad's likely re-election this year will leave their dream of a return home as distant as ever. The brutal war in Syria between the regime and its foes shows no sign of abating and has killed at least 146,000 people since it erupted in mid-March 2011. And 2.5 million Syrians have fled abroad and another 6.5 million have been internally displaced. Jordan is home to more than 500,000 of the refugees.

      Sandwiched in between Iraq and Syria, Jordan's destiny seems to be one of a constant struggle for survival. John Defterios explains.
    • SHEFFIELD, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 18: Queen Elizabeth II wears 3 D glasses to watch a display and pilot a JCB digger, during a visit to the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research centre, on November 18, 2010 in Sheffield, England. (Photo by John Giles - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

      At the last football World Cup, it was all about 3D. This time around, it's nothing less than 4K.
    • An Iraqi worker adjusts a control valve at the Daura oil refinery on November 5, 2009 in Baghdad, Iraq. Iraq and a grouping of U.S and European oil companies Exxon Mobil Corp and Royal Dutch Shell PLC signed a $50 billion contract today to develop the West Qurna oilfield, two days after the Iraqi South Oil Company signed a technical service contract with Britain's BP and China's CNPC to develop the Rumaila oilfield. The Iraqi government is trying to attract foreign investment, especially in the oil sector, in hopes of reviving its war-torn economy. Iraq has the third largest oil reserve in the world but it is producing way below its potential. (Photo by Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images)

      Iraq produces 3.3 million barrels per day and has the world's fourth-largest oil reserves. But the current crisis is putting all this in danger.
    • Valves of gas pipe-line are seen in the gas station not far from Kiev on March 4, 2014. The European Union will help Ukraine pay the $2.0 billion it owes to Russian gas giant Gazprom, a top official said Tuesday, as part of an aid package reportedly worth more than one billion euros. AFP PHOTO/ ANDREY SINITSIN (Photo credit should read ANDREY SINITSIN/AFP/Getty Images)

      The gas standoff between Russia and Ukraine could have a knock-on effect on Europe. Explore this map to find out why is the EU nervous.