James Moore: Rein in Google? You won't find EU watchdogs keying that into a search engine

James Moore@JimMooreJourno
Wednesday 02 October 2013 02:33

Outlook Here's an interesting thought experiment. Ask yourself which would be more economically destructive: the US Government shutting down, or Google shutting down. The global economy will soon be counting the cost of the former, with the Republicans in Congress putting their hatred of Obamacare above America's economic future.

But isn't the latter arguably scarier still? Which is why it is disappointing – but perhaps not surprising – that European Union competition regulators continue to bend over backwards in an attempt to agree a deal with the search giant that allows it to escape punitive fines of up to 10 per cent of its turnover, plus other remedial measures.

Joaquín Almunia, the EU's Competition Commissioner, says he's minded to accept Google's latest attempt to put a lid on a tortuous probe that's been running for nearly four years, during which time the company has further expanded its services throughout the web and technological eco systems. Reining it in has never been more important, but whether it's at all achievable is highly questionable. So what have we got? Well, after an earlier deal was nixed, Google has promised a larger space on its search results pages to results from rivals, which will also have their logos featured.

The way it conducts its ad auctions – vital if you want your product highlighted in yellow at the top of the page – will also be tweaked. Oh, and Google promises, cross heart and hope to die, not to discriminate if its advertisers port campaigns over to its rivals or if publishers that work with Google feature its rivals' ads. Which it has more or less said before.

Here's an interesting question: how high will a piece like this, which isn't all that flattering, appear on Google news? I'll be most interested to see, because that's rather the point. Google's absolute dominance in search has consequences far beyond mere search – and it has nigh on 90 per cent of the search business in Europe. It is not altogether clear that the "remedies" offered yesterday will do anything to halt its relentless march. It's not clear whether anything can.

The EU will now ask rivals whether they think Google has done enough (ironically these include Microsoft – itself not unknown to the competition authorities). They're already rumbling about not being happy. However, it doesn't really look as if the EU has the stomach for a real fight. It's economically weak, and fears the consequences of Google's lobbyists whisper in the wrong ears across the Atlantic.

Google's "do no evil" line is often quoted. Unfortunately it seems we have to take that on trust because if Google wanted to be a baddie (assuming it isn't), who's going to stop it?

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