By PAUL GEITNER
Published: July 25, 2012
BRUSSELS — The European antitrust chief said Wednesday that any changes Google offered to settle concerns that it might be tilting Internet search results in its favor should be applied worldwide.
Joaquín Almunia, the European Union competition commissioner, made the remark as he was confirming that his case against Google for allegedly abusing its dominance in search and advertising was moving toward a settlement.
Mr. Almunia also said that a settlement in the case did not mean he would not undertake inquiries in other areas that raised competition concerns.
“Some other aspects of Google activity can be investigated also,” Mr. Almunia said, mentioning applications for smartphones as an example.
The European Commission said in May that Google might have abused its dominance by promoting its own businesses at the expense of competitors. At the time, Mr. Almunia gave Google several weeks to propose changes in four specific business areas, or the company would face formal antitrust charges.
Mr. Almunia was vague about what Google had offered to clear the way for the talks. “We were trying to clarify to them how these solutions should be established,” he said. “They were exploring with us what kind of solutions we were asking for, and now we have enough clarifications so as to start the process of technical meetings.”
Google, which has a 90 percent market share in many large European markets, has long maintained that its search results are neutral. But on Wednesday, Mr. Almunia said more detailed talks toward a settlement would proceed “even if they don’t recognize the problems that we observe.”
“They will try to solve it,” he said during a news conference. “And I have reasons to believe that they think it’s worth it.”
He said that it was up to Google to come forward with specific solutions, and that any remedy could not be limited to searches in Europe only, given the Internet’s global nature. “We will look for worldwide solutions,” he said.
He added that there was no deadline, and no guarantee a settlement would be reached.
Al Verney, a Google spokesman, declined to comment, other than to repeat that the company would continue to cooperate with the commission.
Mr. Almunia emphasized that the investigation into Google’s search practices was not limited to any particular platform. “Through your desktop, laptop, notebook, tablet or smartphone, if you go to the search engine, the problems are the same, or similar,” he said.
Nicolas Petit, a law professor at the University of Liège in Belgium, said including mobile devices like smartphones “makes sense” since they no longer constituted an “emerging market, it’s an important one.”
Google also is being investigated by antitrust regulators in the United States. In April, the Federal Trade Commission hired a prominent litigator, Beth A. Wilkinson, in what was seen as a strong signal that they were prepared to take Google to court.
The F.T.C. is also examining whether Google manipulated search results to make it less likely that competing companies or products appeared at the top of a results page.
The four practices Mr. Almunia listed in May included the way Google displayed links to its services differently from links to competitors’ services, and its use of restaurant and travel reviews from competitors’ Web sites.
Unlike his predecessor, Neelie Kroes, who was often referred to as “Steely Neelie” in battles with Microsoft and others, Mr. Almunia, who took office in 2010, has gained a reputation for attempting to reach settlements, where possible, rather than let cases drag on for years. Especially in the fast-moving technology field, remedies imposed by regulators can be outdated by the time they are implemented.
Google, whose corporate motto remains “Don’t Be Evil” despite investigations against its practices worldwide, has also indicated its desire to settle the case, as it has with others in the past, to try to safeguard its reputation.
But a settlement reached in 2008 between Google and author and publisher groups over its plan to scan the world’s books was thrown out last year by a U.S. judge, who cited lingering antitrust and copyright infringement concerns.
Google’s critics accused the company of trying to pull another fast one.
“For years, Google has said it deserves the benefit of the doubt,” said Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Competitive Technology, an industry group heavily financed by Microsoft. “Unfortunately, they’ve played us for fools every time.”
Mr. Zuck praised the commission’s “persistent work,” but said an “effective remedy” required an admission by Google of wrongdoing. “Without that understanding on the part of Google, it will never implement the kind of fundamental changes to its business practices that are necessary to curb these abuses,” he said.
Microsoft, one of the complainants in the European case against Google, was itself the target of European scrutiny for a decade, ultimately paying around $2 billion in fines and penalties.
Such fines in Europe can reach up to 10 percent of a company’s annual global revenue. Google’s revenue was nearly $38 billion last year.
Unlike their counterparts in the United States, antitrust regulators in Europe can impose penalties without first winning court orders. A company can appeal to a court but usually must comply with regulators’ judgment in the interim.