Publishers urge European Commission to reject Google antitrust deal

Accepting Google's commitments would secure its dominance rather than temper it, the publishers said

European periodical and online publishers have urged the European Commission to reject Google's latest proposal to settle an antitrust case.

The commitments proposed by Google would not stop the company's "abusive promotion of its own services," the publishers said in their response, sent to the Commission and published online Thursday.

"On the contrary, accepting these commitments would inflict additional harm to competition, innovation and consumer choice as they are based on an ineffective and harmful concept. They will secure Google dominance in any market it wishes to enter and legalize its anti-competitive conduct," the publishers said in their statement. Attached to the statement is a list of more than 30 European associations of newspaper, magazine and online publishers.

Google has been under investigation by the Commission since November 2010 after competitors complained that the company favored its own services in search results, reducing the visibility of results from competing sites. To mitigate these concerns, Google has proposed to show three clearly labeled rival links for every query that results in links to Google's services. Some of these links will require the rivals to pay Google.

Joaquín Almunia, Commission vice president in charge of competition policy, said earlier this year that these settlement proposals were acceptable. Since than, he has been working to convince the complainants and his fellow commissioners to accept the proposals.

In June, the Commission sent the complainants a letter outlining its reasons for accepting Google's proposals, giving them a chance to respond within four weeks.

Though the publishers issued their reply on Thursday, the Commission received the response in time, said the publishers' lawyer, Thomas Hoppner. Publication was delayed because of the holiday period, he said, adding that the publishers wanted to make sure their rebuttal was read by as many people as possible.

The publishers pointed out that under the current proposal, the most prominent areas of any search results pages would be reserved for Google's own services, independent of their quality, while all rival services have to accept inferior visibility even if they are far more relevant to a search query.

In the case of a mobile-product search for instance, Google would be able to show six times as many products as even the most successful rival, they said. "The proposed layout ensures Google's services the highest click-rates and, ultimately, market share," they said.

The only relevant commitment by Google is the addition of three "rival links" whenever Google puts links to its own monetized services first, the publishers said. "However, in the most relevant commercial areas rivals will have to bid for a Rival Link in an auction and pay Google the highest price for a click," they said, adding that as a result, websites would not be ranked by relevance anymore but primarily according to the price they are willing to pay Google.

"As a new type of ad, Rival Links are not a concession but a new revenue stream for Google. As rivals could always bid for AdWords-ads, their situation is not improved," they said.

The publishers complaints are in line with those of Google rival and lead complainant Foundem, which slammed the Commission over the antitrust settlement proposals in July. Foundem blasted the Commission for apparently adopting wholesale Google's proposal to settle the case, while giving complainants no fair chance to express their views on the settlement.

According to Foundem, the Commission's key arguments for adopting Google's proposals are erroneous and directly contradict the fundamental conclusions of the Commission's own preliminary assessment.

Almunia said in a news conference on Wednesday that the Commission ended up sending letters to 20 complainants. Eventually he received 18 replies. "We are now analyzing these responses," he said, declining to comment on when the Commission would be able to reach a decision.

The current Commission's term of office runs until the end of October. It is uncertain whether Almunia will be able to fashion a final consensus within the Commission by then. If he does not, a decision can be postponed until the next Commission is installed.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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