Google muscle draws a gaggle of antitrust scrutiny

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Google muscle draws a gaggle of antitrust scrutiny

Google is facing a new antitrust probe by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission into whether the company is using its leadership in the online display-advertising market to illegally curb competition, people familiar with the matter said.

The fresh inquiry, which follows the FTC’s decision to close a review of Google’s search business in January without taking action, is in the preliminary stages and may not expand into a larger probe, said the people, who asked not to be named because the matter hasn’t been made public.

FTC investigators are examining whether Google is using its position in U.S. display ads - a $17.7 billion industry that includes the sale of banner ads on Web sites - to push companies to use more of its other services, a practice that can be illegal under antitrust laws, the people said. Google has been drawing regulatory scrutiny around the world as it bolsters its market share of digital advertising.

Canada’s Competition Bureau is preparing to start a formal inquiry into Google’s search practices, the company disclosed last week. The European Union is investigating Google for the way it operates the search business and has also opened a probe into its handset unit, Motorola Mobility, over the licensing of patents to rival device makers. Antitrust agencies in Argentina and Korea are also scrutinizing the company.

Niki Fenwick, a spokeswoman for Google, and Peter Kaplan, a spokesman for the FTC declined to comment on the probe.

Google, avoiding a potentially costly legal battle with U.S. regulators, in January ended a 20-month probe into whether it unfairly skewed search results by pledging to change some business practices and settling allegations it misused patents to thwart competitors in smartphone technology.

The company said it would voluntarily remove restrictions on the use of its online search-advertising platform and offer companies the option of keeping their content out of Google’s search results.

Meanwhile, Google is considering buying map-software provider Waze, setting up a possible bidding war with Facebook, people familiar with the matter said.

Waze is fielding expressions of interest from multiple parties and is seeking more than $1 billion, said one of the people, who asked not to be identified because the talks are private. The Palo Alto, California-based startup might also remain independent, instead seeking to raise a round of venture capital financing, the people said.

As consumers gravitate toward mobile devices and away from laptops and desktops, Facebook, Google and other companies are beefing up efforts to court customers on the go. The potential bidding tussle for Waze, which uses information from online communities to improve driving directions, reflects the widening importance of maps on smartphones and other handheld gadgets.

Facebook, based in Menlo Park, California, has held talks to buy Waze for as much as $1 billion, two people familiar with the matter said earlier this month.

Google, based in Mountain View, California, and other large tech companies have approached Waze about a possible deal since the Facebook talks became public, the people said.

Bloomberg

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