Google's secret proposals leaked as dismay over EU antitrust inquiry grows

The latest proposals give Google less room for maneuver, but rivals are still not happy
Illustrative examples of how Google's remedies could look on the Web on a phone

Illustrative examples of how Google's remedies could look on the Web on a phone

  • Illustrative examples of how Google's remedies could look on the Web on a phone
  • Illustrative examples of how Google's remedies could look on the Web

Google's latest proposals aimed at avoiding an antitrust fine from European authorities have been leaked amid growing anger over the secrecy surrounding the case.

The documents, seen by IDG News Service on Wednesday and verified by sources in possession of the originals, revealed the full remedies put forward by Google, the questionnaire that rivals have been asked to fill in giving their response to the remedies and a comparison document showing the changes in Google's remedies since the last proposals.

The documents were leaked because "the confidentiality of this second Google proposal is an unlawful abuse of process," according to email from the person who sent the documents to IDG. Unlike the first round of so-called "market testing," Google's revised proposals have not been made public and were only sent to 125 interested parties who were warned that they were not to be made public.

The source suggested that E.U. Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia wants to settle the case quickly, behind the scenes, before his tenure ends, "without being bothered by the press or too many interested parties. It is a muzzle hindering the complainants to publicly speak out again, what is not right with the proposal this time."

Although European Commission sources confirmed last month that Google had supplied them with data on click-through rates for rivals as well as other empirical data, this has not been supplied to complainants. Among the documents sent by the E.U. to interested parties in the case was a questionnaire intended to elicit opinion about the settlement proposal.

Among other issues, complainants are also angry at the narrowness of the questionnaire.

The Commission did not immediately respond to questions about what sanctions it could take if one of the recipients of the documents was found to have been behind the leak.

Sources close to the case said they could not understand the reason behind the secrecy. "There's nothing particularly confidential in the latest proposals, so I have no idea why they would want to keep them secret. Presumably Google asked the Commission for secrecy, but how this benefits them I don't know," said a legal expert.

It is clear from the leaked documents that the language has been much tightened, with less ambiguity and fewer loopholes. However the substance of the settlement proposals remains largely unchanged.

Rivals say this is not good enough. "Almunia said last month that the visibility of the rival links is not sufficient. But we think rival links is completely the wrong path to pursue. We don't want to argue about font size, we just want Google to treat its own services in the same way it does everyone else's. But the questionnaire does not leave room for that sort of argument. It's easy to control what answers you get, by asking very specific questions," said the legal expert.

"It took Google almost four years to come up with an antitrust remedy proposal, which would only benefit Google," said Michael Weber from Hot Maps, one of the original complainants. "The search giant's allegation that complainants are obstructionists for rejecting this, is a vivid example of Googlespeak. Their wait-and-see attitude gave them a few more years of time to abuse their dominant position, at the cost of everyone on the Web."

The European Commission has been investigating Google for three years over allegations that it has abused its dominant market position. The company is accused of prioritizing its services in search results, scraping content from rival websites, tying advertisers in with exclusivity clauses in contracts and making it difficult to move advertising campaigns away from its sites.

Google has said it will eliminate these clauses for five years and make it easier for advertisers to move their campaigns to rival services. To address the content-scraping issue, Google has offered to create an opt-out option for websites; this will also let sites opt out of Google content scraping for sub-domains and other specific parts of a website's content. The new text says this will have "no material adverse impact on crawling and indexing of the site or its appearance and ranking in Generic Search Results or AdWords Results."

Finally, in the 94-page document, which includes sample images and layouts, Google has undertaken to promote three links to rival search sites for any searches that generate revenue-earning service results from Google.

Meanwhile U.S. public interest organization Consumer Watchdog has challenged Google to make its latest proposals public. In a letter to Google CEO Larry Page the group said it would publish the proposed deal if the search giant failed to do so by 5 p.m. local time Wednesday.

"Just this once, Mr Page, treat your company's data the same way you treat everyone else's: Organize the information and 'make it universally accessible and useful,'" wrote John Simpson, the group's privacy project director.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Jennifer Baker

IDG News Service
Topics: advertising, antitrust, Google, regulation, legal, internet, government, search engines
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