WASHINGTON – There soon could be two Googles: one built for Europeans, with links to rival search engines and labels alerting users whenever Google is featuring its own products, and another version for everyone else.
The variations could result from what amounts to a split decision in two high-profile antitrust investigations into the California-based search giant, one by U.S. regulators, the other by Europeans.
Google emerged from the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) probe in January with only modest concessions as U.S. officials essentially dismissed the most serious allegations of monopolistic behavior — namely that the company manipulated search results to benefit its services.
But European regulators took a tougher line Thursday, making a preliminary ruling that Google may be abusing its dominance over the search industry. The victims, the European officials said in a break with the FTC’s ruling, are not merely rival companies but consumers, who will benefit from a freer marketplace.
“The commission considers at this stage that these practices could harm consumers by reducing choice and stifling innovation in the fields of specialized search services and online search advertising,” European regulators said in a statement issued Thursday.
To ease this impact, Google has agreed to make a series of changes to ensure that users understand the difference between neutral results — generated by search algorithms — and ones for which Google profits more directly, either through payments from advertisers or by enticing users toward one of the company’s other offerings, such as its shopping or travel services.
Google’s rivals, whose complaints sparked the investigations in Europe and the United States, were quick to criticize the proposal as too weak as they prepared to push for bigger changes in a comment period scheduled over the next month. At the same time, however, they grumbled that the FTC should have required Google to at least make the same concessions for users in the United States.
“The Federal Trade Commission looks like a weak sister here,” said Gary Reback, an attorney for competitors of Google who has criticized the FTC’s handling of the case. “Europeans will have more choices than Americans.”
The Europeans addressed this issue directly in a Q&A, noting that Google’s market share in Europe is higher than in the United States — about 90 percent in Europe compared with roughly 67 percent in the U.S. — making the legal case on monopolistic behavior easier. Europe’s regulators also have tighter antitrust laws and are less likely to be overturned by an appeals court, legal experts says.
The FTC declined to comment. Former Chairman Jon Leibowitz, who oversaw the unanimous Google ruling before resigning in February, did not respond to queries about the action of European regulators.
Google spokeswoman Samantha Smith said, “We continue to work cooperatively with the European Commission,” but she declined to comment further.
European regulators released the 61-page settlement proposal from Google, including mockups showing how results pages could change. Although such web pages once had only a series of blue web links generated by algorithms, Google has for years increased the percentage of its pages filled by paid advertisements and links to its services, such as Google Shopping, Google Places and Google News.
The proposed changes are not so dramatic that an American signing on to Google from Paris would be startled by the differences. But through a series of subtle cues — outlined boxes, altered wording and links that lead users to competing search engines — European regulators aim to give users more information. The most noticeable changes are proposed links to other specialized search engines, such as shopping or travel search sites, giving consumers an easy way to move from Google in a quest for better results.
Critics said these links, which Google will sell in auctions, do not give nearly the prominence and visibility enjoyed by the company’s product links, which include pictures and prices when users search for cameras, televisions or other shopping items.
David Vladeck, a Georgetown University law professor and former head of consumer protection for the FTC under Leibowitz, declined to directly address comparisons between the approaches of the different regulatory bodies but said the proposed changes to results pages will not dramatically change how most users experience Google.
“I don’t think at the end of the day it’s going to make much of a difference,” Vladeck said. “These are essentially cosmetic changes.”
The European settlement proposed by Google acknowledges no wrongdoing and will trigger no fine, although if the company later violates the terms of an agreement with regulators, they could impose a levy equal to 10 percent of global revenue.
The proposal also includes new limits on the search engine’s ability to aggregate and display content produced by other companies, and it requires that marketers be able to easily move their ads to rival services. These changes resemble concessions Google made to the FTC as it closed its investigation.