The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is pushing to conclude its antitrust investigation of Google Inc. (GOOG:US) in the coming weeks, four people familiar with the matter said.
The agency’s staff will present its findings to the FTC’s five commissioners by mid-September and probably recommend whether to sue the company for hurting competition through its Internet dominance or suggest a basis for settlement, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the progress of the probe is confidential.
Google, the operator of the world’s largest search engine, has been engaged in talks with the European Commission since May when Chief Competition Officer Joaquin Almunia asked the company to propose solutions to the commission’s concerns. Competitors have complained that Google promotes its own specialist search services, copies rivals’ travel and restaurant reviews, and stifles competition in the advertising industry through its agreements with websites and software developers.
Details of what Google has proposed to the EU haven’t been disclosed. That proposal includes an offer to make limited changes to search rankings, including whether Google services are ranked above those of competitors and warning users if Google products have been given precedence, one of the people said.
The FTC is aware of what Google has proposed to its European counterparts, three of the people said. The agency would regard a Google proposal, or even overtures to open talks, as premature until it has decided whether the company has violated the law, the people said.
“A global settlement would wrap everything up a lot more cleanly for everybody,” said Jeffrey Jacobovitz, an antitrust litigator with McCarthy, Sweeney & Harkaway PC in Washington.
Jill Hazelbaker, a spokeswoman for Mountain View, California-based Google, didn’t respond to e-mails and a phone call seeking comment on the status of the FTC probe. Cecelia Prewett, an FTC spokeswoman, declined to comment.
Google has come under growing pressure from global regulators examining whether the company is thwarting competition in the market for web searches. In addition to the FTC and EU probes, antitrust agencies in Argentina and South Korea are also scrutinizing the company.
Google disclosed on June 24, 2011, that the FTC had begun a review of its business practices. The investigation is focused on whether Google unfairly ranks search results to favor its own businesses and increases advertising rates for competitors, other people familiar with the investigation have said.
The agency also is examining whether the company is using its control of the Android mobile operating system to discourage smartphone and device makers from using rivals’ applications, those people have said.
FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said in an interview in June that he expects to resolve the Google antitrust investigation “certainly by the end of the year.”
The European Union’s antitrust agency in 2010 began investigating claims Google discriminated against other services in its search results and stopped some websites from accepting competitors’ ads.
Last month, the European Commission said it had reached a level of understanding with Google and called the company’s proposals a “good” basis for further talks.
“Given that Google is a global player and both the FTC and EC are investigating it and likely coordinating negotiations, it would make sense for Google and both agencies to try to work toward a global settlement,” said Sharis Pozen, former acting chief of the antitrust division of the U.S. Justice Department.
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