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Google needs a very thorough frisking, say antitrust senators

FTC told search biz's dominance raises questions

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The Federal Trade Commission has been urged by two concerned US lawmakers to investigate Google's search business practices more thoroughly.

Senator Mike Lee and Senator Herb Kohl, who both sit on the upper house's judiciary antitrust subcommittee, wrote (PDF) to the FTC's chairman Jonathan Leibowitz on Monday.

"Google is dominant in general internet searches, with a 65 to 70 per cent market share in computer-based internet search, and a market share of at least 95 per cent for internet searches done on mobile devices," the letter said, which cited StatCounter metrics for top search engines in the US between October and November this year.

The missive continued: "Indeed, in response to Senator Kohl's question at subcommittee hearing to Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt as to whether Google is a monopolist in online search, he responded, 'I would agree, Senator, that we're in that area'."

Kohl and Lee said questions needed to be asked about whether Google's dominance in the search market meant the Larry Page-run company was steering web surfers to its own products and services, and thereby "discriminating against other websites with which it competes".

The letter specifically noted Google's move into offering products via its vertical search sites, such as YouTube, Maps and Places.

"Many question whether it is possible for Google to be both an unbiased general or 'horizontal' search engine and at the same time own this array of secondary web-based services from which the company derives substantial advertising revenues," the senators wrote.

The letter went on to point out how some companies, including Yelp! and Nextag, had complained that their businesses had been harmed by Google's alleged practice of favouring its own content over that of rivals via its search engine.

Kohl and Lee added that concerns had been expressed about how handset manufacturers could, in the future, be told to tie Google's search engine to the company's Android operating system.

Mountain View is yet to dismiss such a claim, reads the letter.

The men concluded by saying that they want to see "robust competition" in the online search business, and urged the FTC to investigate the allegations to "determine whether Google's actions violate antitrust law".

Google told Bloomberg that it appreciated that the committee had "reserved judgment" about the company.

“We are committed to competing fairly on the internet’s level playing field,” said Google in a statement to the news wire.

In June this year, an antitrust investigation was formally opened by the FTC. It is investigating Google's search and advertising practices.

Meanwhile, in Europe the company's business is being probed by anti-competition regulators.

As we reported in early December, Google will be hit with a meaty statement of objections file from the European Commission in early 2012. The complainant's document is understood to be more than 400 pages in length.

The EC opened a formal investigation into allegations that Google has abused its dominant position in online search by illegally favouring, or gaming, its own services in November last year. ®

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