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EU competition chief stands by Google decision, despite increasing outrage

EU competition chief stands by Google decision, despite increasing outrage

French and German ministers voice concerns about Google settlement

Competitors and politicians are lining up to complain about Google, but the EU's competition commissioner is defending his decision to settle an antitrust case against the company.

Commissioner Joaquín Almunia reacted Tuesday to a letter from French Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg and German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel criticizing the settlement.

The company has been under investigation by the European Commission since November 2010 after competitors accused it of directing users to its own services by reducing the visibility of competing websites, content-scraping and exclusivity deals with advertisers.

Google has agreed to present three rival links for every query that results in links to Google's services. These will be separated from Google's services and be clearly labeled. Google has also proposed an opt-out plan for content providers and is removing all exclusivity obligations from advertising contracts for the next five years.

Almunia says that these conditions are acceptable and that the case will soon be closed. "In the coming days we will send out rejection letters to the 18 complainants in this case," he said Tuesday.

However, Montebourg and Gabriel said in their letter that the measures should be improved and called for a new consultation with stakeholders. They also want the investigation into Google's search service extended to other business practices. Gabriel is also considering regulatory measures in Germany, including forced unbundling.

The Open Internet Project (OIP), a group of more than 400 European digital companies, also criticized Almunia's decision. "If this settlement were to happen, it would actually make matters worse," said Christoph Keese, executive vice president at Axel Springer and part of the OIP group.

Last Thursday the OIP submitted its own formal complaint about Google to the commission, saying the search giant was abusing its dominant position to promote its services and stifle competition.

German telecoms operator Deutsche Telekom has also sent a formal complaint to Almunia's team. He said Tuesday that although he accepts that due to its size and global reach there are issues to be examined with Google, he couldn't tackle them all in a single case.

This position has led several complainants to suggest that Almunia is stalling until his term as competition commissioner runs out at the end of October, leaving the various Google cases for his successor to tackle.

Adding further fuel to the fire, European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who is the center-left's candidate to lead the commission after October, joined calls Monday night for Google's market dominance to be subject to strict regulation. Should he be appointed head of the commission, the Google saga will doubtless continue, regardless of who is appointed new competition chief.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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