EU presses Google on antitrust; US backs out

Google seems on its way to coming through a major antitrust investigation in the US essentially unscathed. But the outlook is not as bright for Google here, as the European Union's top antitrust regulator prepares to meet on Tuesday with Eric E Schmidt, Google's executive chairman.

In the US, the Federal Trade Commission appears to be ready to back off what had been the centrepiece of its antitrust pursuit of Google: the complaint that the company's dominant search engine favours the company's commerce and other services in search queries, thwarting competition.

Yet in a statement last spring, Joaquín Almunia, the competition commissioner of the European Union, placed the contentions about search bias at the top of his list of concerns about Google. And in a private meeting this month, Almunia told Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC, that European antitrust officials remain focused on that issue, according to two people told of the meeting, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorised to speak about it.

Almunia's tougher bargaining stance, antitrust experts say, is not merely a personal preference.

European antitrust doctrine, they say, applies a somewhat different standard than US law does. In America, dominant companies are given great leeway, if their conduct can be justified in the name of efficiency, thus consumer benefit. Google has consistently maintained that it offers a neutral, best-for-the-customer result.

In Europe, antitrust experts say, the law prohibits the "abuse of a dominant position", with the victims of the supposed abuse often being competitors. "The Europeans tend to use competition law to level the playing field more than is the case in the US," said Herbert Hovenkamp, an antitrust expert and law professor at the University of Iowa. (Hovenkamp advised Google on one project, but no longer has any financial connection to the company.)

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