Google said Friday that it had received a subpoena this week from the Federal Trade Commission as part of a government investigation into the company’s business practices. This marks the first time the U.S. government will take a broad look at whether one of the country’s most powerful companies is harming consumers or stamping out competition, joining inquiries in progress in other countries.
The company with the motto “Don’t be evil” said it wasn’t sure what the FTC will investigate but vowed to cooperate, maintaining that it always focuses on what’s best for users.
“We respect the FTC’s process and will be working with them (as we have with other agencies) over the coming months to answer questions about Google,” wrote Amit Singhal, a Google fellow, in a company blog post. “Since the beginning, we have been guided by the idea that, if we focus on the user, all else will follow.”
The FTC is in the early stages of learning more about the company, according to people close to the investigation. The agency might conclude that the company has done nothing wrong, or it could impose sharp restrictions on Google’s behavior.
There are hints of what’s troubling the government — with parallels to the landmark case built by the Justice Department against Microsoft in the 1990s.
Being big is not itself against the law. Yet as with Microsoft and its Windows operating system, critics allege that Google is illegally leveraging a popular product, its search engine, tounfairly knock out competitors.
The company’s position as the Internet’s most popular search engine has given it immense power over the fortunes of a huge array of companies and industries, from retailers to news sites. But critics worry that with Google acting as the de facto gatekeeper for the Internet, users don’t always know what they’re missing when they hit “search.”
The business of search is multilayered. There are the broad players such as Google, Bing and Yahoo that consumers use as entry points to the Web. But there are also a plethora of specialized search sites, such as Orbitz for travel and Yelp for restaurants, that depend on Google for much of their traffic.
There is intense competition to appear high up on Google’s first page of results. Formany businesses, millions of dollars of revenue can hang in the balance depending on the outcome of Google’s algorithms.
As Google has launched its specialized services, some critics have worried that Google has been putting its products higher in its results. They point to Google’s tendency to show its Google Maps product in a large box above other results, making it tougher for competing services, such as MapQuest, to win users.