The broadest definition of Google's business model: "to organize the world's information and put ads around it" is a juicy target for regulators and trade groups. The search giant already has a few brushes with wary governments under its belt, but this week, Google confirmed a broad probe by the Federal Trade Commission, and promptly reiterated its commitment to users.
What we learn
What does one learn from reviewing Google's tricky history in trade regulation? The Mountain View firm has come very, very close to the trade suit tipping point before, but seemed to know where the line was. And it's not a bad bet to guess that Microsoft could be involved. Here's what's happened so far:
- Acquisition of DoubleClick, April 2007-March 2008: Ad-serving firm DoubleClick was already a point of concern for online privacy advocates; its 1999 merger with a data collection agency raised fears of ubiquitous web tracking. Google's $3.1 billion purchase agreement drew near-instant FTC filings from privacy groups, and, in a surreal twist, Microsoft and AT&T. But FTC approval came in Dec. 2007, and the European Union followed in March 2008.
- Yahoo Search Partnership No-Go, June-December 2008: Google backed out of this proposed deal, rather than provide search results for its closest (but still small) competition and invite a Department of Justice monopoly suit. The result: Microsoft's Bing engine easily slid into a search results deal with great terms.
- Google Books Settlement, Oct. 2008-present: Google first scanned the collections of massive public libraries. The Authors Guild and American Association of Publishers sued, and Google settled for $125 million in Oct. 2008. That settlement was amended after a DOJ anti-trust warning, then later ruled "not fair" by a federal court, which suggested a better deal would involve an "opt-in, not opt-out" system for content owners. (Microsoft did, of course, help sponsor some legal work).
- AdMob Purchase, Nov. 2009-May 2010: Google was prepared to fight the FTC on this acquisition of the leading mobile display and in-app ad firm, CEO Eric Schmidt said. But the fight never came, mainly due to Apple's push into the mobile ad space with its own acquisition, Quattro.
- France, Texas, and Skyhook Cry Foul, June-October 2010: Google barred a French firm from advertising a speed trap alert app, and was sued by the French Competition Authority. A smattering of businesses accused Google of leveraging search results to promote its own products, and the Texas Attorney General sued. And Skyhook Wireless claims in a suit that Google first licensed, then stole its cellular triangulation tools, and then leveraged its mobile might to force Skyhook out.
- ITA Acquisition, July 2010-April 2011: An entire cadre of travel and airline sites (spurred, of course, by Microsoft/Bing) formed the FairSearch.org alliance to draw attention to Google's planned acquisition of travel search. The Department of Justice basically forced Google to continue licensing and developing ITA's offerings for competitors, and Google agreed.
- European Union Investigation, Nov. 2010-present: The EU inquiry is a broad look into whether Google fairly places its own specialty search products (like Shopping), and services (like YouTube), and whether Google's ad campaign contracts are overly restrictive. Microsoft, of course, weighed in.
- Current antitrust actions, March 2011-present: The Senate Antitrust Subcommittee suggested a hearing was due (see "Competition in Online Markets"), but no formalities so far. Now we have this week's reports that subpoenas were issued in a broad, unspecified FTC investigation - the first major move by the government without an obvious acquisition or market move as a spark.
- ZDNet: Google confirms FTC probe: Translating what the company really means
- ZDNet: In this economy, is a Google antitrust probe "un-American?"
- CNET: On Capitol Hill, it's all about beating down Google
- CBS News: Echoes of Microsoft, IBM in Google tussle
- BNET: Google Is a Monopoly - That's Why Its CEO Dares Not Testify to Congress
- New Google CEO Larry Page: Here are your top two priorities
- Behind the curtain at Google: Social, China, AI, and ambition
- Jean-Louis Gassée: Google's SOE (Strategy of Everything)
Kevin Purdy is a freelance writer, a former editor at Lifehacker.com, and the author of The Complete Android Guide.