Google said to be possible FTC antitrust target

Posted April 06, 2011, at 7:42 a.m.

WASHINGTON — The Federal Trade Commission is considering a broad antitrust investigation into Google Inc.’s dominance of the Internet-search industry, two people familiar with the matter said.

Before proceeding with any probe, the FTC is awaiting a decision by the Justice Department on whether it will challenge Google’s planned acquisition of ITA Software as a threat to competition in the travel-information search business, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter is still confidential.

An FTC investigation of Google, the world’s most popular search engine, “could be on par” with the scope of the Justice Department’s probe of Microsoft a decade ago, said Keith Hylton, an antitrust law professor at Boston University School of Law. Google “could fight the FTC, but that’s going to cost a lot of money and time.”

The FTC and Justice Department share responsibility for oversight of antitrust enforcement, and the outcome of the ITA deal may determine whether the two agencies will vie for control of a broader probe of Google, the people said. The two agencies sometimes negotiate which will handle major antitrust investigations, with the decision turning on their respective expertise.

The Justice Department may soon announce its decision on Google’s purchase of ITA, said the people familiar with the matter.

FTC Commissioner Thomas Rosch said in an interview last month he supported a probe of the dominant players in the Internet-search industry, without specifying which companies. Rosch, one of two Republicans on the five-member commission, is the only commissioner to say publicly that such an investigation is in order.

The people familiar with the matter said any investigation of the search industry should concentrate on Mountain View, Calif.-based Google, owner of the world’s most popular search engine.

If consumers don’t like what the company is doing, they can switch to another search engine, said Adam Kovacevich, a Google spokesman.

“Since competition is one click away on the Internet, we work hard to put our users’ interests first and give them the best, most relevant answers to their queries,” he said in an email. “We built Google for users, not websites.”

Cecelia Prewett, a spokeswoman at the FTC, and Gina Talamona, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to comment.

Google is facing growing scrutiny from regulators as it bolsters its search business. Officials in Texas and the European Commission have started investigations into Google’s search dominance, while Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine is considering such a probe.

The EU probe is examining whether Google discriminated against other services in search results and stopped websites from accepting rival ads. A complaint from Microsoft last month may expand the investigation to online video and mobile phones.

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