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Google rivals may be quizzed on antitrust offer this week

The Google signage is seen at the company's headquarters in New York January 8, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
The Google signage is seen at the company's headquarters in New York January 8, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

By Foo Yun Chee

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Google's rivals could get the chance to ramp up pressure for tougher concessions from the search giant when they are asked, possibly as early as this week, to study its proposals for ending an EU antitrust investigation.

The world's most popular search engine formally submitted a package of concessions to European regulators last week and three people familiar with the matter said on Monday these could be put to rivals this week in a market test.

The proposals are intended to settle an investigation dating from November 2010 and stave off a fine that could be as high as $5 billion if the company were found to have breached EU rules.

"It is possible the market test could start this week," said one of the sources, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The spokesman for competition policy at the European Commission, Antoine Colombani, declined to comment. Google spokesman Al Verney said the company continued to work cooperatively with the EU antitrust watchdog.

Complainants against Google include Microsoft, online mapping services, smaller rival search engines across Europe, publishers, online travel sites such as TripAdvisor and Expedia, and price comparison sites.

Neither the Commission nor Google have given details of the proposals. But people familiar with the matter have told Reuters these could include Google labeling its own services to differentiate them from rivals', and also imposing fewer restrictions on advertisers.

Google's opponents have already indicated labeling will not address their concerns.

"Labeling is a non-starter and may be worse than the existing situation," said David Wood, a lawyer for online lobbying group ICOMP, whose members include Microsoft and four other complainants.

Any concessions the regulators accept from Google will be valid for five years in Europe and be monitored by a trustee to ensure compliance, one of the sources said.

"Rival services will be shown more prominently in search results, with three links to three different search engines," this person said.

"Advertising space in Google Shopping will be reserved exclusively for vertical search sites," the person said, referring to specialty search functions focused on specific topics.

Rivals can also mark out sensitive information such as addresses, telephone numbers, opening hours and reviews which they do not want Google to use.

"This is especially for local search sites and product search sites, such as online travel site TripAdvisor and Nextag," the person said.

The Financial Times first reported on the details of Google's offer.

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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