European press publishers urge Commission to reject Google’s latest antitrust settlement offer

It already looks like Google’s European search antitrust case will roll on for some time yet, thanks to a host of new complainants and some pertinent criticisms of the concessions Google has put on the table, but here’s another voice calling for the Commission to reject that deal.

On Thursday an informal coalition of European press publishers’ associations said Google’s proposed commitments were “wholly insufficient to restore competition, innovation and consumer choice to the digital market.” Helmut Heinen, the president of the Federation of German Newspaper Publishers (BDZV), said in a statement that the deal would “effectively legalise Google’s abusive self-preference.”

Portal players

The antitrust case has been going on for four years now and it has several aspects, but the big remaining blocker is the way in which Google presents results from smaller search engines that operate in specific vertical industries, like [company]Yelp[/company] or [company]TripAdvisor[/company]. Currently Google, which has around 95 percent of the EU search market, gives preference to its own results, sometimes shuffling those rivals off to the second page or worse. Its proposed concessions would involve an auction process for rivals to pay for greater prominence at the top of the first page.

The publishers pointed out in their analysis that ranking rivals’ results by their willingness to pay for prominence is hardly an improvement in the context of Google’s EU monopoly. “As a new type of ad, Rival Links are not a concession but a new revenue stream for Google,” they said.

You may be wondering why publishers are so bothered about this ecommerce stuff. One reason is that traditional paper publishing giants are these days getting into the vertical search market in a big way. Germany’s [company]Axel Springer[/company], for example, owns property, jobs and local discovery platforms.

But that’s not their only gripe. One of the other strands of the Google antitrust case involves its scraping of content from third parties, and that’s very much the same kind of complaint these publishers have previously levied at Google News – witness the Google tax laws that have popped up in Spain and Germany following furious publisher lobbying. Indeed, Google News is part of this case too, albeit a relatively minor one.

Google News revisited (ad nauseam)

Hence this element of the publishers associations’ broadside on Thursday:

The latest proposal contains no improvement for Google’s anti-competitive use of third-party content. A settlement would legalise the ineffective ‘opt-out’ mechanisms which Google has imposed on content providers against their will and against the basic legal principle that it is the rightsholder and not the user that may determine the scope and conditions of the use of its content.

The publishers are complaining that, if they opt out of having snippets of their content appear in Google News, that also has “detrimental effects on the ranking or appearance of that website in the general web search; a consequence that no content provider can risk.” Google has promised to protect the publishers’ rankings in general search results whatever they do, but the publishers claim it can still punish them by kicking them out of the “News-Universals” block of the most relevant news results at the top of a standard web search page.

What’s more, the publishers have noticed that Google is promising product, local and travel search rivals the ability to mark up particular information on their pages that Google cannot scrape. This only amounts to a maximum of 10 percent of the readable text on each page, but the publishers say this still shows Google can give them something better than the “simplistic opt-out variations [i.e. robots.txt] that do not help.”

These publishers come with considerable political clout. Even though their complaints about Google News are misguided – the service sends traffic their way so they should stop whingeing and being greedy — their overall contribution to this case will give the Commission yet another reason to reject Google’s third set of commitment revisions, and kick the matter down to whichever poor sod succeeds outgoing Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia in November.