U.S. Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz took time away from a Southern California technology conference to dine with a senior executive at Google (GOOG) Inc., the subject of an intensifying government antitrust probe.
Leibowitz had lunch yesterday with Susan Wojcicki, Google’s senior vice president of advertising, at Catalina Kitchen at the Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes. The pair were attending the D10 conference, put on by technology blog AllThingsD.
Wojcicki spearheaded Google’s $3.1 billion acquisition of DoubleClick Inc., an Internet-advertising company, and was involved in Google’s purchase of AdMob Inc., which specializes in mobile ads. Google’s advertising practices are part of the FTC’s antitrust investigation.
The agency is examining whether the company unfairly increases ad rates for competitors, people familiar with the matter have said. FTC officials have also asked rival shopping and review websites whether Google sells them prime advertising space on search results pages, people with knowledge of the matter said earlier this month.
The FTC is seeking to determine whether Google is using its dominance to thwart competition among Internet companies. Google was used in 67 percent of U.S. searches in April, according to ComScore Inc., a Reston, Virginia-based market researcher.
“There are certainly allegations that the search results have changed or evolved over the years,” Leibowitz said on stage yesterday at the conference. “We’re trying to figure out if the evidence is there and what the theories are.”
In a separate interview yesterday with Bloomberg, Leibowitz said he recently held meetings with executives at Square Inc., Reputation.com Inc., Zynga Inc. (ZNGA) and Mozilla Corp. to discuss online privacy.
“It’s valuable to keep lines of communication open” with leaders in the technology industry, Leibowitz said.
The investigation of Mountain View, California-based Google has intensified in recent weeks as agency lawyers prepare to question Eric Schmidt, the company’s chairman and its chief defender against antitrust charges.
The agency in April hired Beth Wilkinson, a top Washington litigator, to run the antitrust investigation.
“When you have an opportunity to get someone of Beth’s stature and abilities, you would always want to take her up on it,” Leibowitz said. “It doesn’t mean that we’ve decided to bring a case at all, it just means that we have very competent counsel who can go toe-to-toe with their very competent counsel,” he said, referring to Google.
Google said in a blog post yesterday that it’s starting a product-search service Google Shopping and will require retailers to pay for inclusion in the listings. Google rivals have criticized the company for giving preference to Google product listings in search results.
The charges to manufacturers and retailers represent a change in Google’s practices, Danny Sullivan, an Internet search analyst, said in a column this week on the Marketing Land blog. In its 2004 initial public offering letter, Google said the company wouldn’t accept payment for including specific search results.
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