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Google may face 'broad US antitrust probe'

FTC will pounce if DoJ doesn't, says report

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The US Federal Trade commission is considering a broad antitrust investigation of Google's search business, according to a report citing two people familiar with the matter.

Bloomberg reports that before launching a probe, the FTC is waiting to see if the Department of Justice will challenge Google's proposed acquisition of flight data outfit ITA Software.

The DoJ is investigating whether Google could use its web search monopoly to hamper competition in the vertical flight search market, but it may also be asking the broader question of whether the company's search dominance could lead to another monopoly in virtually any vertical search market.

According to Bloomberg's sources, the DoJ may soon announce its decision on the ITA deal. It's possible that the DoJ could launch a broader investigation of Google, which would supersede any plans at the FTC. Both of the government agencies are charged with antitrust enforcement, and they may compete for control of particular cases.

At this point, the DoJ is first in line, due to the ITA investigation. But the FTC also has experience with Google. It reviewed Mountain View's acquisition of online ad outfits DoubleClick and AdMob.

This past fall, the EU launched a formal antitrust investigation of Google's search and ad practices, and last week, Microsoft filed a formal antitrust complaint with the EU as well. Ciao, a Microsoft-owned vertical search engine, was among a trio of companies who previously complained in Europe.

"We're not surprised that Microsoft has done this, since one of their subsidiaries was one of the original complainants. For our part, we continue to discuss the case with the European Commission and we're happy to explain to anyone how our business works," Google spokesman Adam Kovacevich told us.

The Texas Attorney General's office has also launched a Google antitrust probe. According to Google, the Texas Attorney General has requested information regarding three companies, including UK-based price comparison engine Foundem, which is also part of the probe in the EU. Foundem has, among other things, accused Google of using its so-called Universal Search setup to unfairly drive traffic to its own vertical services, such as Google Product Search and Google Maps.

The mid-90s US antitrust suit against Microsoft began in Texas. After that state opened its probe of the company, the Department of Justice joined 20 states in the suit against Microsoft. ®

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