US lawmaker questions FTC's Google antitrust investigation

The agency should 'tread carefully' before bringing an antitrust lawsuit against the company, Polis says

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission should "tread carefully" before bringing an antitrust complaint against Google, a veteran U.S. lawmaker said as news reports suggested the agency is ready to move forward.

Representative Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, questioned the FTC's reported move toward filing a case against Google. The FTC staff has prepared a recommendation that the FTC sue the company for anticompetitive behavior, according to recent news reports.

An FTC representative declined to comment on the news reports.

But Polis, founder of three Internet businesses, said in a letter sent last Tuesday that Google's advertising services help many small businesses reach their customers.

"At a time when the national economy continues to stagnate, it's not clear to me why the FTC should be focusing on a product that consumers seem very happy with, search engines," Polis wrote. "Competition is only a click away and there are no barriers to competition; if I created a better search algorithm I could set up a server in my garage and compete globally with Google."

Internet users have several other competing services available, he added. His constituents use Amazon.com for shopping, iTunes for music and movies, Facebook for social networking and mobile apps like Yelp to find local business, he said.

Internet users could see an antitrust lawsuit against Google or other Internet giants as excessive regulation, Polis added. "Today's giant can be tomorrow's failure without any government intervention," he wrote. "Several years ago, we called firms like AOL, MySpace and Yahoo 'dominant' -- but those firms have struggled to retain consumers online."

A Google spokesman repeated a recent statement from the company regarding an FTC antitrust lawsuit: "We are happy to answer any questions that regulators have about our business."

The spokesman also emailed a Time magazine article suggesting an FTC antitrust case would raise concerns about Internet regulation.

The FTC began investigating Google for antitrust violations in mid-2011. The agency reportedly focused on Google's relationship with Android handset makers and whether Google favors its own services in search results.

In April, the FTC hired outside litigator Beth Wilkinson to lead its antitrust investigation of Google.

Competitors of Google, including Microsoft and other members of advocacy group FairSearch.org, have complained that Google is using its search dominance to drive its customers to other Google services.

"Consumers -- not search engines -- should choose winners in the marketplace," the group said on its website. "No one company should be allowed to use its dominance to foreclose competitors from the search marketplace -- particularly in high-traffic specialty segments, like travel, jobs, health, real estate, media and local search."

U.S. policy makers "must act now to protect competition, transparency and innovation in online search," FairSearch.org's website said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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