The European Union executive hopes to close a high-stakes anti-trust dispute with internet giant Google by next spring, competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia said on Tuesday, with a settlement seeming increasingly possible.
Pressed by Google's many rivals, the
European Commission has accused the US Internet giant of giving unfair preference in its search results to its own services, such as surveys of restaurants and hotels.
Google attempted to assuage the concerns earlier this year, but the EU said the US internet giant still fell short of satisfying complaints with plaintiffs and Google competitors.
But a new proposal submitted early in September and worked on with the Commission ever since shows "significant improvements", Almunia told lawmakers in European Parliament.
If agreed, the new proposals could substantially change the appearance and operations of the world's most used search engine, but it remains to be seen if Google rivals will accept the changes.
In a brief statement, Google executive Kent Walker said the company had substantially revisited its first proposal despite "thriving" online competition.
"This has been a very long and very thorough investigation," Walker said and Google had made "the difficult decision" to agree to EU requirements.
Almunia said a questionnaire will now be put to plaintiffs and market participants "in order to conclude whether this new proposal is satisfactory from a competition point of view."
If satisfactory, the commission will continue on the negotiated settlement route "and end up with a formal decision next spring," he said.
Otherwise, the commission will be forced to send objections to Google "in the coming months", he said, beginning a process that could punish Google with fines of up to 10% of its total annual sales.
But Almunia told lawmakers he was confident the hard work was done.
Under the new plan, he said, links from non-Google rivals became "significantly more visible" with more space and the "possibility to display their logo next to the (Google-generated) link".
The new proposal will also ensure that whatever is agreed will apply to any medium, including by voice, a key shortcoming in the earlier proposal according to rivals.
Brussels launched its investigation of Google in November 2010 following a complaint by several companies, including Microsoft.
Google holds about 70% of the search engine traffic in the United States and 90% in Europe. In January, US authorities absolved Google of non-competitive practises in a very similar case.
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