EU Antitrust Chief Joaquin Almunia
Europe's antitrust chief Joaquin Almunia in July.Reuters

The four-year investigation into Google's search practices took another twist on Tuesday (23 September, 2014) when the European Union's competition chief, Joaquin Almunia, said that the search giant would have to improve on its fourth set of proposed changes if it was going to avoid being found in breach of antitrust regulations.

The Commission asked Google to improve its settlement offer for an unprecedented fourth time at the beginning of September, having rejected the third set of proposals the company submitted in February 2014.

Following that submission the EU called on complainants to submit their reactions to Google's proposals, and the result is a request for a fourth submission.

Speaking today in Brussels as he presented the Commission's annual competition report, Almunia said:

"In response to our pre-rejection letters sent before the summer, some of the twenty formal complainants have given us fresh evidence and solid arguments against several aspects of the latest proposals put forward by Google.

At the beginning of the month, I have communicated this to the company asking them to improve its proposals. We now need to see if Google can address these issues and allay our concerns."

Complaints

The European Commission has been investigating Google since 2010 over complaints from other web services such as Yelp and TripAdvisor that Google is favouring its own services over those of competitors' in search result lists.

If Google fails to deliver the necessary changes, "the logical next step is to move to a statement of objections," or formal charges against the company, Almunia said.

Earlier this year it was reported that Google had reached a deal with the EU regulators meaning it would avoid a fine of up to £3bn.

According to an unnamed European Union official speaking to Reuters at the time, Google's third revised proposal of concessions since September 2013 to allay concerns from its competitors were "much better".

However, Almunia's comments today clearly indicate that Google is not out of danger. The competition chief also said that while the investigation into Google has lasted four years, an antitrust investigation into Microsoft lasted 16 years and that case was not as complex as the Google one.

The Federal Trade Commission in the US investigated Google over the same issue for 19 months, ending its investigation in January 2013 with only a mild reprimand.