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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

In Europe, New Protest Over Google

In Europe, New Protest Over Google

Titus Simoens for The International Herald Tribune

Joaquín Almunia, Europe’s antitrust chief, said Google’s mobile software was being studied.

BRUSSELS â€" European antitrust regulators have received a formal complaint about Google’s Android operating system for mobile devices, even as they move to the final stages of their inquiry into the company’s search practices.

The complaint was filed by Fairsearch Europe, a group of Google’s competitors, including the mobile phone maker Nokia and the software titan Microsoft, and by other companies, like Oracle. It accuses Google of using the Android software “as a deceptive way to build advantages for key Google apps in 70 percent of the smartphones shipped today,” said Thomas Vinje, the lead lawyer for Fairsearch Europe, referring to Android’s share of the smartphone market.

For example, phone makers that agree to use Android â€" and that also want Google applications like YouTube â€" face contractual requirements to place those applications and other Google-branded applications in prominent positions on the mobile device’s desktop, Mr. Vinje said.

In an interview on Monday, the European Union’s antitrust chief, Joaquín Almunia, declined to comment on the new complaint but said officials had been examining the Android operating system independently of the two-year inquiry into whether Google had abused its dominance of Internet search.

When a formal complaint like this is made, the commission must at some point decide whether to take up the case or drop it.

Mr. Almunia also said that he was receiving proposals this week from Google to clear up concerns about its search practices, and that he hoped they would make it easier for Internet users to identify when Google was promoting its own services rather than those of competitors who might offer better results.

“This is a new step in the investigation,” he said.

A Google spokesman, Al Verney, would not specifically discuss either the new complaint or the comments by Mr. Almunia about the search case, saying only that the company continued “to work cooperatively” with the commission.

The European Commission opened its antitrust inquiry into Google’s search practices in November 2010. The investigation has since focused on whether Google might have unfairly taken advantage of its market dominance by giving preference to links to its own services, like Google Maps, when answering queries; whether Google disadvantaged competitors by including material in search results that came from other Web sites; and whether Google conducts its advertising business in accord with European antitrust law.

Last May the commission suggested that Google propose changes in how search results are presented as a way to settle the case. Since then, regulators and Google have been negotiating over those changes and other terms.

In Monday’s interview, Mr. Almunia said Google needed to offer the commission a solution where choices between Google-branded search results and those of its competitors were clearly visible within the search engine both on desktop computers and on mobile devices.

“I don’t know if you should call it labeling, or whatever, but they need to distinguish,” Mr. Almunia said.

“In some cases this can be achieved through the information you will receive through the natural search results,” he said. “In other cases, maybe we will ask Google to signal what are the relevant options, alternative options, in the way they present the results.”

The choice “should be a real one,” he said.

Mr. Almunia said regulators were not requiring Google to make changes to its algorithm, the secret formula that the company uses to determine the best responses to search queries.

In terms of the way Google uses and displays snippets of information from other Web sites in its search results, he said he expected Google to accept that other companies could choose “to allow or not to allow Google to use the content, but this decision cannot have as a consequence the punishment of those who will not allow the use of the content in terms of search results.”

Web sites and some publications have complained in recent years of virtually disappearing from Google’s search engine if they posed a competitive threat or did not comply with Google’s terms.

Mr. Almunia said he would test any changes that Google proposed to make by sending questionnaires to competitors, including the complainants, and to other companies.

Mr. Almunia said in Europe, where Google is especially strong, with more than 90 percent of the search market, compared with about 70 percent in the United States, it is particularly difficult for search engines to establish themselves if they focus on narrow but deep services like online shopping, travel or mapping.

But Mr. Almunia also said his approach in the case was not aimed at “protecting competitors,” as critics of European regulation have long complained.

Mr. Almunia said that he had concerns that Google had abused its dominance to promote its own products but that he would not need to “find a final answer to this question” if Google reached a settlement. “We are concerned by the possibility of an abuse,” he said.

“What is clear in our view is the market dominance of Google,” Mr. Almunia said. “This is obvious.”

He also noted that “it would not be surprising” if Google faced formal charges in a case concerning Motorola Mobility, a mobile phone maker owned by Google. That case follows complaints by Microsoft and Apple that they were victims of unfair licensing conditions and abusive litigation by Motorola Mobility.

The commission has taken a tougher line with Google than has the Federal Trade Commission on the issue of how Google runs its search rankings. The F.T.C. decided in January, after a 19-month inquiry into how the company operated its search engine, that Google had not broken antitrust laws.

A version of this article appeared in print on April 9, 2013, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: In Europe, New Protest Over Google.