Google faces anti-trust probe

Google really is the new Microsoft now, even down to the unfair practices investigations.

by Elizabeth Anderson
Last Updated: 15 Jul 2011
For months there have been whispers about Google’s unfair tactics in the world of online search, but now the US authorities are reportedly taking legal action similar to that taken against Microsoft two decades ago.

Federal regulators are preparing to launch an antitrust investigation into whether the global internet giant uses its dominance in the online search market to choke competitors, the Wall Street Journal reported this morning. If the authorities do come knocking, it’ll be 20 years after the Federal Trade Commission launched a similar enquiry into Microsoft. In the 1990s Microsoft was accused of monopolising the software on home computers, and stifling competition when it came to offering alternative internet browsers. Now the same complaints are being made by companies who want more prominent listings on the Google search engine.

Rivals have been complaining for a while now that the search giant deliberately fixes results in favour of promoting its own services. In fact, there was so much noise about it that the European Commission launched an antitrust review, which is still ongoing. This included a complaint from British price comparison site Foundem, French search site 1plusV and even a complaint from Microsoft over the German site Ciao it bought a couple of years ago (rather ironic, given that the software giant has spent a large chunk of the past decade fighting antitrust battles of its own.)

The companies accused Google, which has a 90% share of the search market in Europe, of manipulating search results to give them a lower ranking. The sites also complained about the amount Google charges for advertising, potentially giving Google the power to limit the growth of their business.

The comparisons with Microsoft don’t end there of course – Google has also been accused of failing to spot the social networking boom coming, just as Microsoft in its time was accused of being a late arrival at the web party. But when it comes to anti-competitive behaviour, Google has always strongly refuted such charges, saying scrutiny is ‘part of the territory when you are a large company.’ It insists the business operates in the interests of users, rather than self-interest, and competes ‘fair and square.’ But it is learning that the transformation from hot start-up to corporate giant is not without its drawbacks.

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