Google Antitrust Hearing Requested by U.S. Senators

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2011-03-13

Google Antitrust Hearing Requested by U.S. Senators

Despite competition that exists just a click away, the bull's-eye on Google's back has grown as big as its 65 percent U.S. search market share in the eyes of the U.S. Senate.

One day after the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights vowed to ensure fair competition in the Internet search market dominated by Google, Sen. Michael S. Lee, R-Utah, March 11 called for the subcommittee to conduct an oversight hearing on the search giant.

Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., said in a March 10 statement on the group's agenda that he wants to make sure Internet search is fair to users and customers, that consumers' privacy is preserved, and that advertisers who pay search engines to place information about their goods and services have sufficient choices.

It's no coincidence that these, along with Google's increased appetite for acquisitions that fortify its massive market plot, are all areas where Google has found itself challenged in 2010.

"In recent years, the dominance over Internet search of the world's largest search engine, Google, has increased and Google has increasingly sought to acquire e-commerce sites in myriad businesses," Kohl said in a statement.

"In this regard, 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. We also will continue to closely examine the impact of further acquisitions in this sector."

Lee fervently supported Kohl's stance and called for the Senate to conduct oversight hearings into the company's search, advertising, and merger and acquisition practices, which have made it a sort of "gatekeeper over a variety of Internet businesses."

Lee cited Google's $700 million bid for ITA Software as an example. Google July 1, 2010, moved to purchase ITA to gain access to online flight fare and scheduling information that is used by a number of online travel and vertical companies, including Expedia, Kayak and Microsoft.

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Under the coalition, these companies asked the Justice Department to block or limit the deal, which would allow Google to control the ITA fire hose of data that is so valuable to their online travel services.

"Google's position as the preeminent search engine may be abused so as to disadvantage competing vertical search sites to the detriment of advertisers and internet users," Lee wrote, echoing members' position.   

Lee also argued that Google's wealth of personal data, including data on users' search Web History, and Web services such as Gmail, Google Checkout and DoubleClick open it to privacy threats.

These anti-competition and privacy infringement arguments levied against Google are not new. In fact, they echo much of what Google has already heard from vertical search engines such as Foundem, and Microsoft's Ciao.

These companies prompted the European Commission to investigate Google for anti-competitive practices, arguing that the search engine drops their Websites' rankings in in favor of its own product search services.

Texas State Attorney General Gregg Abbott launched a parallel investigation into the matter by other complainants in the United States. Meanwhile, attorneys general in more than 30 states have joined forces to request the data that Google's Street View cars accidentally collected over unsecured wireless networks.

Through all of this growing opposition, Google has professed an interest in serving customers the best possible way. A Google spokesman told eWEEK:

"Our goal is to provide users with the best possible answers as quickly as possible-and we know that if we don't deliver useful results, competition is only one click away. Given our success and the disruptive nature of the Internet, we know that scrutiny comes with the territory, but we're committed to making search even better for consumers."

Unfortunately for Google, the Senate doesn't appear to be buying that competition is a click away, and a sweeping antitrust investigation into the company appears almost assured for 2011 given Kohl's emphasis on Google and the search market in the antitrust subcommittee's agenda.

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