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FTC hires hotshot lawyer for Google antitrust probe

Paves way for courtroom showdown with Larry Page

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Google could face court action over its business practices, after the US consumer watchdog – the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – appeared to step up its antitrust scrutiny of the company on Thursday.

The FTC reportedly hired a well-known outside litigator in a move that could indicate the Chocolate Factory might land up in court.

According to the New York Times, US regulators have signed up the services of erstwhile Justice Department prosecutor Beth Wilkinson, who is considered to be a hotshot trial lawyer.

She was a prominent litigator in the conviction of the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Her hiring by the FTC does not necessarily mean a formal case will be brought against the ad giant, however.

Regulators at the FTC formally began investigating allegations that Google favours its own search products over those of its rivals in June 2011.

A similar but separate probe into Google's business practices has been underway in Brussels since November 2010. But regulators on this side of the pond are yet to conclude on their findings.

The Register learned yesterday that any such response has been pushed back to just before the European Commission's summer break.

The "natural next step" – if those conclusions are damning for Google – would be a Statement of Objections, a spokeswoman at the office of Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said, but declined to be drawn on whether an SO would indeed be issued.

Sources had suggested that a 400-page document would land on the lap of Google CEO Larry Page by the end of the first quarter.

Almunia's spokeswoman noted that the EC had "no legal deadline" to issue its conclusion of the investigation into allegations that Google stifles competition by favouring its own search products.

Likewise, the FTC – which has brought in outside lawyers only twice in the last decade, according to the NYT report – could be many months away from the possibility of filing a lawsuit against Google. ®

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