Google Practices Merit FTC Antitrust Probe, Senators Argue

Google's high-stakes antitrust hearing in September seems to have raised more questions than it answered -- and lawmakers are asking regulators to take a closer look at the search giant's operations.

The leaders of the Senate antitrust subcommittee that held a hearing on Google's business practices are urging the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether the company is guilty of antitrust abuses.

In a letter to the chairman of the FTC, Senators Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), chairman and ranking member of the Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, respectively, argued that "a number of concerns" raised at the Google antitrust hearing "merit serious scrutiny by the FTC." Google confirmed in June that the FTC was reviewing the company, though stated it was "still unclear exactly what the FTC's concerns are."

Among other "concerns" the Senators listed in their letter to the FTC, Kohl and Lee highlighted testimony by the CEOs of Yelp and Nextag that Google had stolen traffic from their sites by preferencing its own products; cited Google executive Marissa Mayer's 2007 admission that the search giant has intentionally ranked its own services ahead of other sites'; and pointed out that Google's lone competitor, Microsoft's Bing, has been hemorrhaging around $2 billion a year. The Senators cited statistics indicating Google claims 65 to 70 percent of the Internet search market and powers "at least" 95 percent of queries performed on mobile devices.

They also wrote that Google's business model has "changed dramatically in recent years" as the company "now seeks not only to link users to relevant websites, but also to answer user queries, provide a variety of related services, and direct customers to additional information on its own secondary web pages."

Kohl and Lee noted that when Google chairman Eric Schmidt was asked in the antitrust hearing whether Google was a monopolist in the online search market, Schmidt conceded, "I would agree, Senator, that we're in that area."

The former Google CEO also denied that Google had "cooked" its search results to favor its services ahead of other sites' offerings.

"Senator, may I simply say that I can assure you we've not cooked anything," Schmidt told Lee during the hearing.

"We believe these allegations regarding Google's search engine practices raise important competition issues," Kohl and Lee wrote. "We are committed to ensuring that consumers benefit from robust competition in online search and that the Internet remains the source of much free-market innovation."

In a written response to questions posed by the Senate antitrust subcommittee, Schmidt attempted to position Apple's Siri technology, which allows for voice-controlled search, as a "competitive threat" to Google. The Senators seem unconvinced: their letter made no mention of Siri and stated that Google "faces competition from only one general search engine, Bing [...]"

UPDATE: A Google spokesman told The Huffington Post in an email, "These letters are customary, and we appreciate that the committee reserved judgment as we continue to cooperate with the FTC. We are committed to competing fairly on the Internet’s level playing field.”