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Google's Schmidt meets with EU antitrust chief amid probe

An ongoing investigation into Google's search practices could lead to the company getting nailed with billions of dollars in fines.

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Google's Eric Schmidt talked with the EU's antitrust chief Monday, but details about the meeting haven't been released. Stephanie Pilick/AFP/Getty Images

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has met with the European Union's antitrust chief, but it's unclear whether that will help his company overcome the possibility of getting hit with billions in fines.

Schmidt and European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager met on Monday, the antitrust chief's spokesperson told Reuters on Tuesday. The topic of their meeting was not divulged, but it likely centered on Google's ongoing issues across the European Union.

Vestager is investigating whether Google search is hurting competition there. If Google is found guilty of engaging in anticompetitive practices, it could face a fine equal to 10 percent of its revenue, or billions of dollars.

Regulators have taken issue with the way Google displays content within its search, arguing since 2010 that it may be providing preferential treatment to its own services, like Gmail and Google Maps.

Last year, Google proposed a tentative settlement -- its third -- that would have forced the company to display search results for all services, including its own, in the same way. The company wouldn't have been required to pay a fine.

In September, however, European regulators, who had preliminarily agreed to the idea, said that they had received "fresh evidence" and "solid arguments" from 20 formal complaints. Those complaints, which came from competitors like Microsoft, prompted further investigation.

"We now need to see if Google can address these issues and allay our concerns," former EU competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia said at the time. If Google's response doesn't satisfy the commission, the "logical next step is to prepare a Statement of Objections," Almunia said, referring to formal charges.

Vestager has since replaced Almunia and has continued working on the Google case. As part of the investigation, Vestager has reportedly met with several Google competitors, including Microsoft, which have complained for years that Google's dominant position in search is giving it an unfair advantage.

Google owns more than a 95 percent share of the markets for online search and the profitable search ads that come with them, according to some estimates.

The company has several rivals that take issue with Google's ability to promote its services, including travel booking sites such as TripAdvisor, Expedia and Hotwire, and shopping sites TheFind and Foundem. All of those companies are members of FairSearch, a consortium of companies, mainly from the US, that have lobbied EU officials for greater regulation on Google and the ways it integrates its own services into search.

Google has argued that search is a repository for useful information, and it should be able to highlight certain kinds of content however it wishes. That argument has been readily tossed out by EU regulators who have indicated that the investigation could extend to Google's other dominant platform: its mobile operating system, Android.

Schmidt's meeting comes just days after Google published a blog post trying to appeal to Europeans by highlighting how it has become "a growth engine for European businesses." The blog post, a thinly veiled attempt to win favor in a time when it has very few on its side, argues that Google has helped a wide range of businesses and paid out over 4.4 billion euros (about $5 billion) to European developers in 2014.

Google also plans to train 1 million Europeans by 2016 "in crucial digital skills." The company will also invest 25 million euros to expand its current business-focused programs to other parts of Europe.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the nature of Schmidt's meeting with Vestager.