Eleven complainants sent an open letter to European Union's Competition Commissioner Joaquín Almunia urging him to formally charge Google with breaching competition law.
"The Commission opened proceedings more than two years ago, and we are becoming increasingly concerned that effective and future-proof remedies might not emerge through settlement discussions alone," the complainants wrote to Almunia on Thursday. Among them are U.K. search engine Foundem, which was involved in the first round of complaints, online shopping platform Twenga, travel site TripAdvisor, the Federation of German Newspaper Publishers (BDZV) and the German Federation of Magazine Publishers (VDZ).
Google has been under investigation by the Commission since November 2010, after competitors accused Google of favoring its own services by reducing the visibility of competing services.
There are two equally important aspects to Google's search manipulation practices, the complainants said: Google's promotion of its own services and the systematic demotion and exclusion of the services of others. "Any effective remedies will require explicit commitments to end both aspects," they said, adding that remedying one without remedying the other would simply allow Google to recalibrate the un-remedied practice in order to achieve the same or equivalent anti-competitive effect.
"Google must be even-handed. It must hold all services, including its own, to exactly the same standards, using exactly the same crawling, indexing, ranking, display, and penalty algorithms," the complainants wrote.
To force Google to do this, Almunia should officially charge Google with anti-competitive behavior, they said. "Google's past behavior suggests that it is unlikely to volunteer effective, future-proof remedies without being formally charged with infringement. Given this, and the fact that Google has exploited every delay to further entrench, extend, and escalate its anti-competitive activities, we urge the Commission to issue the Statement of Objections," they wrote.
A Statement of Objections is a formal step in Commission investigations when the Commission informs the parties concerned allowing them to reply in writing and request an oral hearing to present comments. After this, the Commission can make a final decision. If it decides that there is sufficient evidence of wrong-doing, it can issue a decision prohibiting the conduct and impose a fine of up to 10 percent of a company's annual worldwide revenue.
On February 1, the Commission said it had received a proposal from Google to settle the antitrust investigation. Both Google and the Commission declined to disclose what was proposed, and the Commission said it needed time to analyze the proposal. According to reports at the time, the proposal was similar to a settlement Google struck with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and involves Google sharing more information through its advertising APIs (application programming interfaces) and agreeing not to scrape Web content from rivals.
"We will respectfully withhold judgement on Google's proposed commitments until we have seen them," the complainants wrote.
Google declined to comment on the complainants' allegations. "We continue to work cooperatively with the European Commission," Google spokesman Mark Jansen said in an email.
The Commission hopes the antitrust case can be settled "since it would be a quicker way to remove the competition problems we have identified", Antoine Colombani , spokesman for Commissioner Almunia, said in an email.
"However, if the proposals are not satisfactory, the Commission can also decide to resume the normal antitrust proceedings and adopt a Statement of Objections," he added
At the moment, the Commission is working intensively with Google. "If we consider that Google's proposals have the potential to address each of the four competition concerns we have identified, we will launch a market test," Colombani said. This means that complainants will be informed and consulted, along with other market players, before any decision is taken. Google's commitments could then be made legally binding by a Commission decision, he added.
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 [email protected]