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FTC aQuantive probe is 'routine', Microsoft says

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Microsoft has acknowledged that the Federal Trade Commission is reviewing its proposed $6bn acquisition of aQuantive, an online advertising company. "As part of the normal regulatory review process, the FTC has opened a routine, 30-day review period following the filing we submitted on the aQuantive acquisition," a Microsoft spokesman told The Register.

Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal website reported that the FTC was investigating the Microsoft-aQuantive deal as well as Yahoo!’s $680m deal for online ad company Right Media. This follows earlier news that the agency was looking into Google’s $3.1bn deal for DoubleClick, a third digital advertising company.

Late last month, the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) sent a joint letter to the FTC and the U.S. Department of Justice requesting that these types of deals be investigated.

"Our take on this is that the marketplace will be fundamentally changed as the result of proposed mergers, and we don’t quite know what that will mean," says Adonis Hoffman, senior vice president and counsel for the AAAA. "When you look at leaders in online search combining with leaders in ad serving, there are a number of competitive questions that abound. We want to make sure that there is ample competition in the marketplace."

Several other groups, including the Center for Digital Democracy, have also questioned whether these mergers could endanger the privacy of web users. The worry is that a deal akin to the Google-DoubleClick merger would put too much personal information in the hands of a single company.

The irony is that Microsoft was one of the leading voices calling for an FTC probe of the Google-DoubleClick deal. Last month, Kevin Johnson, head of Microsoft’s platform and services unit, told CNET that the company’s deal for aQuantive was very different proposition.

"Google is trying to buy a direct competitor, its most important competitor in the category of delivering ads to websites. Microsoft is acquiring a firm that does not compete with us," he said. "Microsoft has no technology for serving ads to third-party Web sites today and aQuantive's share of this business, of third-party publishers, is less than five per cent."

aQuantive’s ad serving network, Atlas, competes directly with DoubleClick, but the company also owns a digital ad services firm and a business that purchases large amounts of online ad inventory and re-sells it to advertisers. Like DoubleClick and Atlas, Google’s AdSense network does deliver ads across third-party websites, but those ads are largely text-based, whereas DoubleClick and Atlas deliver more visual ads, including banners.

Because companies like Google and Microsoft already have so much information about the search habits of web users, they could potentially leverage networks like DoubleClick and Atlas streamline advertising efforts. "When you add the ad serving capabilities to the giant databases these companies already own, you have the power to target advertising much more efficiently," says Norm LeHouiller, the former head of Grey Interactive, the first interactive ad unit established by one of the "Big Ten" ad agencies.

Improving the efficiency of targeted ads is a good thing for advertisers and ad agencies - but there’s a rub. Sites run by Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! are some of the most popular on the web, sites where advertisers are interested in placing ads. If the mergers go through, these companies could have an undo amount of control over ad prices.

Historically, when advertisers were trying to judge how many people they were reaching, the ad network was a check for the site where the ads appeared – and vice versa. "Now, if these mergers go through, the Googles and the Microsofts will be telling me, the advertiser, how much an ad costs and how many people it’s reaching," says LeHoullier. "It’ll be like Time Warner owning the audit bureau."®

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