BRUSSELS — Google’s antitrust troubles in Europe moved closer to a settlement Tuesday after the European Union’s antitrust chief said he had accepted the online giant’s latest offer to settle a long-running investigation of its search and advertising businesses.
But Joaquín Almunia, the EU competition commissioner, said Google’s rivals should be given an opportunity to respond to the proposals. That means the process would probably last until spring — nearly four years after the inquiry began, and long after Google’s $50 billion business has evolved well beyond basic Web search.
Almunia said it was still possible efforts to negotiate an agreement could break down, leaving him with no choice but to send Google formal charges.
“The settlement route remains the best choice,” he said.
That would allow Google to escape a potential fine of up to $5 billion and a finding of wrongdoing that could limit its activities. The company settled a similar US case.
Google’s competitors raised immediate concerns about the latest effort by Almunia to settle.
“It is far from clear from Commissioner Almunia’s description of the revised package of proposed commitments that they go nearly far enough,” said David Wood, legal counsel for Icomp, an industry group backed by Microsoft and other companies that have complained about Google.
Wood said the latest offer by Google should be tested in the marketplace to ensure the remedies address complaints that the company favored its own products in search results.
The case revolves around claims that Google has abused its dominance in Internet search and advertising by, among other things, favoring its own products and services in search results. Google powers 90 percent of searches in many European markets; its US share is closer to 70 percent.
Google portrayed its latest offer as something it agreed to only under pressure.
The European Commission “insisted on further, significant changes to the way we display search results,” Kent Walker, a senior vice president at Google, said in a statement. “While competition online is thriving, we’ve made the difficult decision to agree to their requirements in the interests of reaching a settlement.”
Almunia has been under pressure for years from Google’s rivals to toughen the terms of any deal. Apparently seeking to tamp down those demands, he suggested the latest offer is the best he could get for the European consumer in a sector as complex and rapidly evolving as online commerce and digital media. Almunia said he “cannot describe the details” of the latest offer by Google, and the company said it would not release them yet, either.
But in the area of search, Almunia said that links to rivals would be made “significantly more visible” and that a “larger space of the Google search result page is dedicated to them.”
The rivals “have the possibility to display their logo next to the link, and there will be a dynamic text associated to each rival link to better inform the user of its content,” he said.
Smaller specialized search companies also would be given a better chance of being found on Google’s search engine.
Even with a settlement, Almunia would do what the United States has not, and reach a binding deal on the way Google runs its search business. That shows Brussels is becoming the powerhouse for regulating multinational companies, said Luke M. Froeb, at the Vanderbilt University business school.