Google Inc. (GOOG:US) may reach a settlement of a European Union probe into its search business in the second half of the year, the bloc’s antitrust chief said today.
Joaquin Almunia said he may be able to start checking Google’s January settlement offer with rivals and customers “in the coming months” after officials finish analyzing what Google has put forward. If that process ends without a hitch, the EU could make Google’s offer legally binding and drop possible fines for the operator of the world’s largest search engine.
“We could have an accord after the summer vacations, if this all works,” he said. “That would be my favorite solution, but it doesn’t depend on me.”
Google submitted a settlement proposal to EU regulators after it was asked to address allegations that the company promotes its own specialist search-services, copies rivals’ travel and restaurant reviews, and has agreements with websites and software developers that stifle competition in the advertising industry.
Almunia said today that he has received further complaints against the company and that he hasn’t yet decided whether to formally investigate them. Android, Google’s operating system for mobile phones and tablets, is among other things that regulators are examining, he said.
Al Verney, a spokesman for Google in Brussels, said the company continued to work cooperatively with the commission.
Almunia, the EU’s top antitrust official, declined to say whether a separate investigation of the use of patent injunctions by Google’s Motorola Mobility unit may also be settled.
He previously said the situation in Europe “is not the same” as in the U.S., where Mountain View, California-based Google agreed to lift court injunctions to settle allegations that it violated agreements to license key technology to rivals.
An EU settlement avoids any decision on whether a company broke antitrust rules. Companies can be fined as much as 10 percent of their yearly revenue if they break the terms of a legally binding settlement. Almunia first told Google in May that he wanted to settle the case.
The U.S. ended an investigation into Google’s search business last month, saying there was no evidence that the company’s actions harmed consumers.
In 2010, the EU began investigating claims Google discriminated against other services in its search results and stopped some websites from accepting competitors’ ads. While Microsoft and partner Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO:US) have about a quarter of the U.S. Web-search market, Google has almost 95 percent of the traffic in Europe, Microsoft said in a blog post in 2011, citing data from regulators.
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