The meetings come amid reports that the FTC may resolve its nearly two-year-old investigation of Google without dealing directly with complaints that the company uses its power over the search market to gain an edge over rivals.
Those familiar with the meetings with Justice Department officials say that they were of a preliminary nature and that it was not clear whether they would lead to any action. The department considered launching an antitrust investigation before the FTC claimed the case last year.
The Justice Department took over the high-profile antitrust investigation of Microsoft in the 1990s after the FTC, which is overseen by a bipartisan, five-member commission, deadlocked over complaints from Microsoft’s rivals that it was using its dominance of the market for operating systems to seek advantage in other businesses. The landmark showdown between Microsoft and the Justice Department is often cited as a potential analogy by Google’s critics.The FTC, the Justice Department and Google declined to comment.
Congress has taken a keen interest in the Google antitrust case and may welcome intervention by the Justice Department should the FTC not act on allegations of search bias.
“In past investigations, the Department of Justice has been more aggressive in enforcing the antitrust laws to protect competition in cases when the Federal Trade Commission would not act,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who sits on the Judiciary Committee and was Connecticut’s attorney general when the Justice Department sued Microsoft with the backing of many states. “The same potential opportunity exists here.”
He said he would not comment on whether the department should step in until the FTC makes a final determination in the Google case, which many expect this month. Blumenthal added, “I’m concerned because of the serious and credible claims about anti-competitive activity that certainly warrant investigation.”
The FTC, led by Chairman Jon Leibowitz, is weeks into intense settlement negotiations with Google. While the agency is demanding remedies to some allegations of monopolistic behavior, such as the alleged misuse of patents to hurt rivals, it is not clear that it has the votes on the commission to act on the most serious allegations of search bias. Google has offered some concessions but is resisting a binding decree that might limit its business practices, according to those familiar with the talks.
Rival companies say Google favors advertisers and its own specialized results when users search for travel services or products; those with other services say their links get demoted. Google recently changed all of its shopping queries to show results paid for by advertisers, prompting Microsoft, which operates the Bing search engine, to launch a high-profile ad campaign complaining that consumers were being “Scroogled” by Google.