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Antitrust Subcommittee to Investigate Search, Broadband

A U.S. Senate subcommittee focused on antitrust and consumer-protection issues will investigate competition in the search-engine and broadband markets over the next two years, the subcommittee chairman announced.

Senator Herb Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat, listed search and broadband competition among the top issues that the antitrust subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary will explore between now and the end of 2012.

"Millions of consumers rely every day on competitive markets to keep prices low, and quality of goods and services high," Kohl, the subcommittee's chairman, said in a statement this week. "On the antitrust subcommittee we have found, in industry after industry, that the best way to ensure full and fair competition is through the vigorous enforcement of antitrust law. We will continue to work on the subcommittee to ensure that antitrust law is strongly applied."

Kohl's focus on search-engine competition comes after complaints from some websites about the fairness of Google rankings. Kohl has also questioned the search-engine giant's recent acquisitions, including a planned purchase of travel and airline vendor ITA Software. In December, Kohl urged the U.S. Department of Justice to carefully review the ITA acquisition.

"Participants in the on-line travel industry are concerned that Google could refuse to make the key components of ITA software available on reasonable terms to other online travel industry participants by raising the price for a renewed license or refusing to license improvements to the software," Kohl wrote to the DOJ. "As a result, consumers would suffer harm if there is less price transparency from competing air travel search providers, which would harm consumers' ability to obtain the lowest airfares."

The antitrust subcommittee will focus on Google acquisitions and on general competition in the search industry, Kohl said in a press release.

"As the Internet continues to grow in importance to the national economy, businesses and consumers, the subcommittee will strive to ensure that this sector remains competitive, that Internet search is fair to its users and customers, advertisers have sufficient choices, and that consumers' privacy is guarded," he said in the press release. "We will closely examine allegations raised by e-commerce websites that compete with Google that they are being treated unfairly in search ranking, and in their ability to purchase search advertising."

A Google spokesman declined to comment on Kohl's agenda. The subcommittee has not scheduled hearings on search competition.

Senator Michael Lee of Utah, the ranking Republican on the antitrust subcommittee, called for hearings on Google's dominance in the search market. "The powerful position Google occupies in the general search arena creates myriad opportunities for anticompetitive behavior," Lee said in a letter to Kohl released Friday.

Google's access to personal data through products such as Gmail and Google Checkout also raises privacy concerns, Lee said.

"Google's powerful position as an Internet gatekeeper reduces the company's incentive to compete with other search engines by providing enhanced privacy protection for consumers," Lee said.

In the broadband industry, the subcommittee will look into the link between competition and net neutrality, Kohl said.

"Maintaining competitive choices in this industry is crucial to consumers and the health of the national economy," he said in the press release. "We will also examine the issue of network neutrality principles and monitor whether consumers continue to have the freedom to access the internet content they wish without interference from their Internet service provider."

Other priorities for the subcommittee include competition in the cable and satellite TV industries, the airline industry and the pharmaceutical industry, Kohl said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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