The Federal Trade Commission is reportedly approaching Internet companies to gather data for a potential antitrust investigation into Google that could have far-reaching implications for the search giant.
The FTC reportedly plans to issue civil investigative demands, which are similar to subpoenas, to other tech companies to gather information and help decide if a full-blown investigation is in order.
Industry opinions differ about the significance of the move: some feel it’s a strong indicator that the FTC plans to launch a potentially massive antitrust investigation, while others note that similar actions in the past have not always led to a wider investigation.
An FTC probe would be a significant distraction for the Mountain View, Calif.-based company, which is already facing substantial regulatory scrutiny even as its new CEO reorients it towards its mobile Android platform and a renewed focus on social networking.
If the FTC did find evidence that the company has abused its dominant position in search, it could force Google to change its ways. For example, if search results are found to discriminate against competing services, Google may need to retune its search algorithms.
Such developments could weaken the company’s position just when competitors are mounting an effective counter-attack. Microsoft, for example, has been investing heavily in its Bing search, particularly in the fast-growing mobile segment.
An unfavorable result for the company could also be expensive: Microsoft and Intel have both paid out massive fines as punishment for anti-competitive shenanigans, and the legal costs involved would be massive whether Google won or lost.
FTC officials’ ears may have been pricked by a chorus of more than a dozen state attorneys general announcing their own investigations into the search giant’s potentially unfair market practices.
Also, Microsoft has filed a complaint with the European Union alleging that Google’s search and advertising practices are anti-competitive and skewed to benefit its own offerings.
Rumors first emerged a month ago that the FTC was considering an investigation into Google potentially on the scale of the Department of Justice action against Microsoft over a decade ago.