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Although the U.S. Federal Trade Commission ended an antitrust probe of Google a couple of years ago without taking action, the European Commission’s five-year investigation of the search giant could culminate in charges against Google, barring a last-minute settlement, within the next few weeks, according to published reports.
A signal that antitrust charges are in the works, the Wall Street Journal reports, is that competitors that have been engaged with the EC investigation are being asked for permission to publish confidential documents related to the probe.
A source close to Yelp, which has been an outspoken critic of some of Google’s practices, including its giving Google + results precedence over other organic results in local search, confirms that the company has received new requests for documents from the EC over the last few weeks.
Yelp has argued that not only does Google’s practice of preferencing its own products over third parties’ hurt competitors, but more fundamentally it leads to an inferior search experience for consumers.
Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s new antitrust chief, revived the probe of Google recently after an earlier proposed settlement in Europe fell through amidst widespread criticism. Vestager, according to the Wall Street Journal story, would prefer to file charges against Google over reaching a settlement as a way to make a statement with lasting impact, although this could be a negotiating tactic on her part.
In the travel industry, companies such as TripAdvisor, Expedia and Skoosh, among others, are also believed to have cooperated with the investigation and have pushed for competitive relief.
The potential actions in Europe, coupled with revelations in the U.S. over the last couple of weeks, could revive antitrust activities in the U.S. in relation to Google.
The Wall Street Journal recently published an FTC staff report from 2012 that called for charges to be filed against Google for ripping off content from sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp, among others, although the FTC took no action.
And Republican U.S. Senator Mike Lee, chairman of the antitrust committee, vowed to probe whether there were improper contacts between Google, the White House and the FTC after the Wall Street Journal reported that Google had almost weekly contacts with the White House or FTC during the antitrust investigation.
The antitrust drama being played out in Europe takes place as various European countries, including Germany, are taking steps to clamp down on online travel agencies’ contractual relationships with hotels, arguing that certain hotel rate clauses stifle competition.