Summary:

Reports that Eric Schmidt has offered to settle an antitrust investigation by the European Commission are everywhere. But the reality is that the details of Google’s proposals — and the regulator’s response — remain shrouded in mystery.

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Is Google’s ongoing battle with European antitrust officials almost over? Not yet.

Late on Monday, just before the expiration of a deadline imposed in May by the European Commission, news hit that Eric Schmidt had sent a letter to the EC competition chief Joaquin Almunia. In it, he is said to have responded to a number of questions about Google’s behavior in the search market — offering what is described as a “settlement offer.”

Sounds like a step forward, right?

But hang on a minute: this is complicated stuff. So let’s try parsing this for a second.

In this case we’re talking about four main areas of Google’s activity that the regulator is concerned about:

  • That Google prefers to link to its own services, like Images and Maps, instead of those provided by rivals
  • That it copies material from rival services for its own travel and restaurant listings
  • That it tries to tie sites to exclusive advertising agreements
  • That it stops advertisers from exporting campaigns to other platforms

So what is Google actually proposing to alleviate these worries? We don’t know: the details of Google’s letter have yet to go public, and the only thing that European officials have said is that they are in receipt of the letter. So, despite speculation by legal experts who think Google could be offering to hold arbitration talks with any offended parties, we are still in the dark.

And even if Google is briefing some people on what it’s putting forward, its own opinion of what it’s saying may not tally with what Almunia’s office will make of it. The Mountain View company has shown recently that it has a habit of responding within the letter of the law but not necessarily the spirit: for example with a terse response to objections over its controversial new privacy policy in February.

There are plenty of reasons to think that Google’s proposals here may be substantive.

It wants to head off threats from other areas, such as investigations into Motorola Mobility and data usage. And then there’s the threat of a fine that could run into the billions of dollars. It doesn’t seem to want war, even if it’s on a countdown to conflict.

But fixing some of these problems could cut to the heart of its business, and that may not be something it is prepared to do. And let’s remember that European antitrust fines, even large ones, don’t always work. So before we all jump on the settlement bandwagon, let’s wait to see what Google’s really offering — because it may not be what we were thinking.

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