The EU’s competition chief has denied making a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Google over how it displays Web search results.
Earlier this month, Google agreed to make concessions to display rivals' links more prominently in a bid to end a three-year investigation by the European Commission, which acts as the bloc's antitrust regulator, over complaints it was blocking competitors in search results.
If found guilty Google could face a fine of up to €3.6bn (£3bn) after more than a dozen companies, including Microsoft, price comparison site Foundem and online mapping company Hotmaps, accused the Web search giant of squeezing them out of the market.
European Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said last week he would accept Google's proposals, calling them significant concessions which had allayed competition concerns, but rival firms said the plans did not go far enough and would only entrench Google's dominance of Internet searches.
Sources told Reuters a third of the members of the European Commission also opposed the deal, underlining the political sensitivity of the matter, but Almunia brushed aside the criticism.
"I have also heard people say that the Commission has entered a gentlemen's agreement with Google which would lead to a way of dropping the charges or closing the file. Not at all," he told a Concurrences Journal conference yesterday.
He said an independent trustee would monitor Google to ensure that there would not be any anti-competitive practices, but he still needs the majority of his fellow commissioners to push through the deal.
This was the third attempt by the world's most popular Internet search engine to settle the investigation after its first two attempts to resolve the case failed.
Under the latest proposals, Google, which has a 75 per cent share of the European search market according to consultancy comScore, will let three rivals display their logos and Web links in a prominent box, and content providers will be able to decide what material Google can use for its own services.
Google will also scrap restrictions that prevent advertisers from moving their campaigns to rival platforms such as Yahoo!'s search tool and Microsoft's Bing. The company must stick to the deal for the next five years.
Almunia, however, said Google continues to be under regulatory scrutiny over its Android operating system for smartphones. "We are in the process of investigating Android in the next few weeks," he said.
Google gives away Android for free. The software, which is available on three out of four smartphones sold worldwide, essentially helps the company extend its core search business and boost its usage in the mobile world.