BRUSSELS -- Google (GOOG) on Tuesday won more time from the European Union's top antitrust enforcer to make changes in its online services that could bring the company a step closer to resolving a three-year investigation without a big fine or a finding of wrongdoing.
After meeting with Eric E. Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, the antitrust official, Joaquin Almunia, said in a statement Tuesday that "we have substantially reduced our differences."
"I now expect Google to come forward with a detailed commitment text in January 2013," said Almunia, the EU competition commissioner.
The meeting between Almunia and Schmidt came as U.S. regulators appeared to be backing away from what had initially been one of the centerpieces of an antitrust investigation on both sides of the Atlantic. Early on, regulators focused on a question that drilled to the core of Google's business model: whether its popular Web search engine thwarted competition by favoring the company's services in presenting results of search queries.
Recent accounts of the U.S. proceedings indicate that U.S. officials are no longer pressing the search-ranking issue. But Almunia is evidently continuing to hold Google accountable on that. He said Tuesday that in their discussion, the company indicated it would make
The other areas in which Almunia expected to reach a deal included the ways Google uses and displays content from other companies in its search tool, and the restrictions that Google places on advertising and advertisers. Any concessions offered by Google would be tested in the marketplace to assess their acceptability to other companies, Almunia said, before becoming binding.
Exactly what concessions on search services that Almunia can wring from Google remained an open question Tuesday, although antitrust experts agreed that he had more leverage than his U.S. counterparts.
If Almunia accepts a settlement offer, Google would avoid a possible fine of as much as 10 percent of its annual global revenue, about $37.9 billion last year. It would also avoid a guilty finding that could restrict its activities in Europe.
"We continue to work cooperatively with the commission," said Al Verney, a Google spokesman in Brussels.