Google May Be Barking Up Wrong Tree With EU Watchdog Plan

Google and the European Commission’s delicate negotiations on a settlement regarding the search engine giant’s alleged antitrust violations this week hit an unusual snag: The terms of Google’s second offer were outed on Wednesday, opening them up to unexpected public scrutiny.

The new offer — including the proposed appointment of a monitor to oversee Google’s antitrust compliance in Europe — is inadequate, according to Consumer Watchdog, which had also participated by making comments on Google’s first proposal back in April.

In response, the privacy group threatened to make the document public unless Google did so first.

As it happened, the Financial Times beat the group to the finish line, John Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog‘s Privacy Project, told the E-Commerce Times.

‘Particularly Hypocritical’

When the European Commission recently provided Google’s latest settlement offer along with a list of its own questions to a group of interested parties, including Consumer Watchdog, it asked the parties to keep the terms confidential.

“The first round was done completely in public,” Simpson said. “We felt that in order to deal with these issues appropriately, the offer had to be evaluated publicly and opened for public comment.”

In particular, “we felt it was particularly hypocritical on Google’s part when they tout themselves as organizing the world’s information to make it accessible, but don’t provide the same transparency for their own operations,” he noted.

In response, Consumer Watchdog offered Google a challenge: release the documents to the public, or it would do so instead. The group sent out its first press release at 9 am London time Wednesday. Shortly afterwards, the Financial Times released the documents on its own.

Consumer Watchdog did not supply the paper with the documents, Simpson said.

A ‘Monitoring Trustee’

In any case, Google’s offer, now available on the Consumer Watchdog site, was “completely inadequate,” Simpson said.

In earlier reports, details of the proposal were leaked in only the broadest of terms. In a nutshell, Google offered to reduce what it would charge rivals to show their links in specialized search queries from 10 euro cents per click to 3 euro cents per click. Users would also have the option to hide these alternative search sites.

In addition, Google would relax rules preventing advertisers from moving their campaigns to other platforms and give rivals more control over what Google can scrap from their websites.

Finally, Google promised to appoint an independent “monitoring trustee” to oversee its compliance over the next five years.

None of what’s proposed in this latest round fixes of the underlying problem, however, of how Google manipulates search results to unfairly advantage its own services, Simpson wrote in a letter Consumer Watchdog sent to Google CEO Larry Page.

“You’ve tinkered with graphic presentation, but have not addressed the fundamental problem,” Simpson charged.

Waiting for the EC to Respond

How the offer’s public disclosure will affect the settlement process now is unclear. Clearly, Consumer Watchdog is hoping that the public revelation will encourage others to protest that Google is getting off too easily and the Commission will be pressured to force Google back again to the negotiating table.

Alternatively, it could be that the EC is embarrassed that its own process broke down in such spectacular fashion and tries to discipline the Consumer Watchdog instead.

“We hope that won’t happen,” Simpson said. “We are submitting our comments and we expect they will be considered.”

In the end, it will be up to the European Commission, Keith Hylton, a Boston University law professor, told the E-Commerce Times.

“They are the ones conducting this negotiation with Google,” Hylton pointed out, “and they have responsibility to make sure it is carried out in terms that don’t embarrass anyone or reveal private information.”

Google did not respond to our request to comment for this story.

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