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Pressure grows on EU regulator to rethink Google settlement

BRUSSELS — During the past five years, Google has taken a gingerly approach to fighting its antitrust battles in the European Union, nurturing a working relationship with Joaquín Almunia, the bloc’s competition commissioner, and patiently presenting him with three sets of proposals to settle antitrust complaints that it favored its own business over that of rivals in search results.

But lately pressure has mounted on Almunia to delay — or even jettison — parts of a carefully crafted antitrust settlement. It is a worrisome development for Google that could spin out an investigation into its search engine and advertising business for many years to come in Europe, where attitudes toward American technology giants have hardened as concerns about their market power and use of private information have mushroomed.

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“The political demand in Europe for scalps from Google is enormous, including in the area of antitrust enforcement,” said Nicolas Petit, a law professor at the University of Liège in Belgium.

Almunia is expected to make a final decision on the Google case in September. He could still complete the provisional deal he announced in February and ignore the flurry of new complaints that have landed on his desk in recent months. But a more aggressive decision by Almunia, derailing that proposed settlement, would be far from a complete surprise.

Without a settlement, Google could be fined up to 10 percent of its nearly $6 billion in annual global sales. Fines have never gone that high, but such penalties look set to rise.

Asked about opposition to the settlement, including from consumer groups and even Almunia’s colleagues, Google pointed to a comment by a senior executive welcoming the provisional deal. The company had “offered to make significant changes to the way Google operates in Europe,” Kent Walker, Google’s general counsel, said in February after the settlement announcement.

For months, rivals of Google — including longstanding complainants like Microsoft, and those not associated with Microsoft’s campaign, like Yelp, a US company that lets people find and review local services like restaurants, plumbers, or pharmacies — have complained that the current deal will do very little to make the online search market more competitive.

Looming over Almunia are hearings that his successor will face at the European Parliament.

Many lawmakers want tougher action against Google rather than a five-year deal that would forestall scrutiny of important areas of Google’s business until the end of the decade.

That could add to pressure on Almunia to abandon the settlement and allow his successor to make a decision.

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