Negotiated deal for Google would prevent long case

What’s the best way to deal with a complex legal case that threatens to drag on for years while leaving unchecked a dominant player in an economically important market?

For EU antitrust chief Joaquin Almunia, the answer in the case of Google, Inc., was clear. Not the long and winding road of formal charges and a potential fine for the world’s most popular search engine, but the quicker route of a settlement.

Google formally submitted its concessions to the European Commission last week, aiming to end the 30-month long case. The regulators said they would market test the proposals soon, indicating they were content with the offer.

While the commission, the EU’s competition authority, and the U.S. company may be happy with the result, some of Google’s rivals are not so convinced.

They see it as a missed opportunity by regulators to tackle what they regard as a dominant player determined to crush smaller rivals and thwart any chances they have to grow.

For his part, Almunia defends the approach he has taken, which was designed to secure a resolution of the case without having to prove guilt and adjudicate a fine. In that way, consumers benefit more quickly from the resolution, rather than having to wait for years as in past EU cases against Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp.

“We. . . prefer to conclude cases swiftly when this brings the most benefits to the markets. In certain industries, such as high-tech and fast-moving markets, it is important that competition is restored quickly and effectively,” the EU commissioner said earlier this month.

Almunia had been concerned that Google may have broken the rules by promoting its services over those of rivals, copying competitors’ travel and restaurant reviews without permission and restricting advertisers from moving to competing services.

In trying to settle the case, the EU competition commissioner has a point, given the length of earlier proceedings against Microsoft and Intel, said Nicolas Petit, law professor at the University of Liege in Belgium.

“The first Microsoft case took six years and even then the remedies were only applicable two years later. The Intel case took nine years from when the complaints were filed to the prohibition decision,” he said.

Given the complexity of the EU case and the fact that U.S. regulators found no wrongdoing in their own investigation of Google’s core search business, Almunia is just being pragmatic, said Edmon Oude Elferink at law firm CMS Derks Star Busmann.

“From the legal and strategic point of view, it’s the thing to do. If a case is not clear-cut, going for a hardline approach is risky. The risk of losing face is very serious,” he said, referring to the Commission’s settlement procedure. “Article 9 is a comfortable road. The commission can claim that it has dealt with the case without running too many risks.”

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