Google antitrust probe in U.S. may be wrapping up

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Google may get a chance to voluntarily change some of its advertising and search practices following a two-year antitrust investigation by U.S. regulators.

That’s according to Politico, which said in a report that cited anonymous sources that the probe may be coming to a close.

The report said the voluntary changes may include the scaling down of using restaurant and travel reviews from other sites and allowing search advertising campaigns to be easily used on other search engines.

The moves would reportedly allow the Internet search leader to dodge a consent decree that could be enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, which has the authority to reprimand companies that violate their own stated policies.

While both the FTC and Google declined to comment on specifics of the case, a Google spokesperson said “We continue to work cooperatively with the Federal Trade Commission and are happy to answer any questions they may have.”

Google competitors have claimed the company has an overwhelmingly dominant stake in both online search and online search advertising, which gives it an unfair advantage over rivals in either industry.

In response, Google has maintained that large companies like itself naturally come under scrutiny. But its success is due to innovation and excellent products, “rather than by locking in our users or advertisers, or creating artificial barriers to entry," Google wrote in a blog post in 2010.

More recently, Google's search business practices were defended in a paper by former federal appeals court Judge Robert H. Bork and J. Gregory Sidak, chairman of Criterion Economics.

The authors argued that claims by Google's rivals that its search practices violate antitrust law "contradict real world experiences in search." Those claims, Bork and Sidak contended, "demonstrate [the] competitors' efforts to compete not by investing in efficiency, quality or innovation, but by using antitrust law to punish [a] successful competitor."

The authors maintained that Google's search and ranking algorithms are not unfair in any way but are only part of the company’s successful competitive practices.

"Punishing Google for being the most effective search competitor would harm consumers and does contradict the recognized purpose of antitrust law," Bork and Sidak wrote.

In November, two Silicon Valley lawmakers said the FTC may be headed toward an "unwarranted" power grabin its antitrust investigation of Google. California democrats Anna Eshoo and Zoe Lofgren wrote in a letter to the FTC that while various media reports had suggested the FTC may accuse Google of unfair or deceptive business practices in addition to traditional antitrust violations, the additional charges would be an expanded role for the agency in antitrust cases.

Google has faced criticism for its business practices overseas as well.

The European Union and India are still investigating allegations of anticompetitive practices by Google.

Competition Commission of India, the country's antitrust agency, in August launched a probe against Google for alleged anti-competitive practices following a complaint by a consumer watchdog group.

And EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia recently said negotiations with Google to settle an antitrust probe have "advanced," but talks are not yet concluded. He also said he could not anticipate the outcome of ongoing talks although they couldn’t go on forever in spite of the fact that there is no precise deadline for their conclusion.

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz had previously said he expected the U.S. probe to be wrapped up before the end of the year.

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