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Google antitrust war may widen

Published: Saturday, Apr. 28, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6B

Google may soon be fighting antitrust battles on two fronts.

The European Commission has been looking for two years into whether the search giant abused local competition laws and is expected soon to either file formal charges or achieve a significant settlement.

Now the Federal Trade Commission, which began examining Google last year, is starting its own antitrust inquiry, hiring a former federal prosecutor this week to lead any potential case.

"The European Commission and the FTC are investigating the same things," said Keith N. Hylton, a Boston University law professor. But, he added, Google faces a tougher situation in Europe, where courts have a lower threshold for assessing market dominance. Also, antitrust regulators in Europe are much more powerful than they are in the United States. For instance, they do not need a court order to impose sanctions.

The move by the FTC could help embolden the European Union's competition commissioner, Joaquin Almunia, to send Google a formal charge known as a Statement of Objections, experts said Friday.

"The antitrust authorities in Europe may have grown wary of being seen as being too tough on successful U.S. technology companies like Microsoft and Google," said Nicolas Petit, a law professor at the University of Liege in Belgium. "So the appointment of a seasoned litigator to head the investigation in the United States could help Almunia to move a bit faster with his case."

Google acknowledges that its prominence invites scrutiny but says that its search service – which it points out is free to users – does not stack the deck and that there are competing search engines.

Any decision on filing a case in the United States is likely to be many months away. But bringing in Beth A. Wilkinson, a partner with the firm of Paul, Weiss in Washington, was widely interpreted as a signal by the trade commission that it meant business.

"It would seem to me to be highly unlikely that they would hire a litigator unless they had some very strong prospect of litigating," said Albert A. Foer, the president of the American Antitrust Institute.

The commission is looking at whether Google has abused its dominance in Internet search and advertising, giving its own products an advantage over those of others while maintaining that it offers a "neutral," best-for-the-customer result.

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