BRUSSELS – The European Union's antitrust watchdog on Wednesday accepted new and "far-reaching" concessions offered by Google to settle allegations it is abusing its dominant position in Internet searches, bringing the three-year-old case close to an end.
Google would significantly change the ways it displays some search results in Europe in favor of its competitors. But reaching a settlement will spare the company a longer antitrust procedure that could have resulted in fines of up to 10 percent of the company's annual revenue, or about $5 billion.
EU Antitrust Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said he's "strongly convinced" the U.S. Internet firm's proposals -- its third attempt to address the competition concerns -- are sufficient.
"This is an important step forward," he told reporters in Brussels.
Now that the EU has accepted Google's offer, the proposals will be sent to the 18 original plaintiffs for evaluation before the Commission makes a final decision in the coming months.
Under its proposal, Google will guarantee to display results from three competitors in a similar way to its own whenever it promotes its specialized search services like Google shopping, restaurant or hotel searches, the Commission said. It will also label more clearly search results stemming from its own services to allow users to distinguish between natural search results and those promoted by Google.
A shopping search for a gas grill, for example, would yield two boxes of the same size and position at the top of the search results page, one showing three "Google shopping results" and immediately to the left of it three results labeled "Alternatives", according to an example provided by the Commission.
At present, only Google's own results are displayed prominently above all other search results. The changes will also be valid for search results displayed on mobile devices.
"Without preventing Google from improving its own services, it provides users with real choice between competing services presented in a comparable way; it is then up to them to choose the best alternative," Almunia said.
The results from three competing search providers would be chosen using Google's normal web search algorithm. In many cases, the competitors would have to pay for their placement through an auction mechanism, the Commission said.
The EU Commission last year threw out two sets of proposed concessions by Google because they were deemed insufficient.
Once a settlement is reached, the concessions will be legally binding for Google for five years across the 28-country European Union, the world's largest economy. The company, based in Mountain View, California, has a market share of about 90 percent of Internet searches in Europe, compared with around 70 percent in the U.S.
"We will be making significant changes to the way Google operates in Europe," said Kent Walker, Google's general counsel. The company now looks forward to resolving the matter for good, he added.
Google's compliance with the terms of the deal would be monitored by a trustee chosen by the European Commission who would work independently of the Commission and the company, Almunia said.
"The concessions are far-reaching and have the clear potential of restoring a level playing field with competitors, said Almunia. "No antitrust authority in the world has obtained such concessions."
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission investigated Google in a similar case last year and decided not to file charges.
Google's competitors, however, were not impressed with the concessions to the EU. Internet commerce lobby group Icomp said the Commission should have given Google's competitors more time to test the concession in depth, using a so-called market test.
"Without a third party review, Almunia risks having the wool pulled over his eyes by Google," the group said.
Google has already offered several concessions to the EU. It will give content providers an opt-out from its specialized search services if they want, without being penalized regarding its ranking in normal Google searches, the Commission said. Google will also remove some exclusivity requirements in agreements with publishers and make it easier to move online advertising campaigns from its services to rivals' offerings.
A separate antitrust investigation on Google's Android operating system is still ongoing, Almunia said.