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Google said to face new FTC antitrust probe on display ad market

The fresh inquiry, which follows the FTC’s decision to close a review of Google’s search business in January without taking action, is in the preliminary stages and may not expand into a larger probe, said the people, who asked not to be named because the matter hasn’t been made public.

FTC investigators are examining whether Google is using its position in U.S. display ads — a $17.7-billion industry that includes the sale of banner ads on websites — to push companies to use more of its other services, a practice that can be illegal under antitrust laws, the people said.

Google has been drawing regulatory scrutiny around the world as it bolsters its market share of digital advertising.

Canada’s Competition Bureau is preparing to start a formal inquiry into Google’s search practices, the Mountain View, Calif., company disclosed last week. The European Union is investigating Google for the way it operates its search business and also has opened a probe into its handset unit, Motorola Mobility, over the licensing of its patents to rival device makers. Antitrust agencies in Argentina and South Korea are also scrutinizing the company.

Niki Fenwick, a spokeswoman for Google, and Peter Kaplan, a spokesman for the FTC, declined to comment on the probe.

Google’s shares fell $9.47, or 1.1%, to $873.32 on Friday.

Google, avoiding a potentially costly legal battle with U.S. regulators, ended a 20-month probe in January of whether it unfairly skewed search results by pledging to change some business practices and settling allegations that it misused patents to thwart competitors in smartphone technology.

The company said it would voluntarily remove restrictions on the use of its online search advertising platform and offer companies the option of keeping their content out of Google’s search results.

The FTC’s resolution of its search-practices probe came as a blow to Google’s competitors, including Microsoft Corp., Yelp Inc. and Expedia Inc. An alliance of such e-commerce and Web search companies pressed the agency to bring a lawsuit, claiming that Google’s dominance of Internet search, combined with the company favoring its own services in answers to queries, violates antitrust laws.

Microsoft isn’t involved in the FTC’s review of the display advertising market, one of the people said.

The FTC secured clearance to move forward with the new investigation in the display advertising market from the antitrust division of the Justice Department under a process that ensures the two agencies don’t investigate the same matters at the same time, one of the people said.

For the last two years, the Justice Department and the FTC have split investigations of Google, with the FTC conducting a broad probe of whether the company’s business practices hurt competition and the Justice Department reviewing its acquisitions.

In the new probe, the FTC is exploring concerns about Google’s growing market share with some of its digital advertising tools and services, including technology that places display ads on websites, the people said.

The FTC is looking at whether Google is using its tools to force companies to bypass competing products and use other Google properties, including a marketplace for buying and selling Internet display ads, and features that help companies maximize revenue, the people said. The agency is also reviewing Google’s potential to use its dominance in search advertising to squeeze out competitors in the display advertising market, the people said.

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