The head of the U.S. Justice Department’s antitrust division, speaking at a Senate hearing, didn’t rule out the department starting another probe of Google Inc. (GOOG)’s business practices if new allegations emerge.
Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee today asked Assistant Attorney General William Baer whether the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s decision in January to close a 20-month probe of Google without taking any action precludes his department from reviewing fresh complaints of anticompetitive behavior the FTC hadn’t explored.
“We have a clearance process between the FTC and the antitrust division that ensures we aren’t investigating the same thing at the same time,” or even subsequently, Baer said. “We would have a conversation about who is best suited to do it.”
For the past two years, the antitrust division and the FTC have split investigations of the Mountain View, California-based company, with the FTC conducting a broad probe of whether Google’s business practices hurt competition and the antitrust division reviewing its acquisitions.
Niki Fenwick, a Google spokeswoman, declined to comment on Baer’s testimony.
The FTC voted 5-0 not to take action against Google after concluding that innovations promoted by the search engine benefitted consumers and outweighed any harm to competition.
Google made some concessions, agreeing to let websites remove their content from specialized search services such as Google Shopping and Google Local without removing or demoting that content from Google’s main search results.
The agency’s decision was a blow to competitors including Microsoft Corp., Yelp Inc. and Expedia Inc., members of an alliance of e-commerce and Web-search companies that had pressed the agency to bring an antitrust lawsuit.
FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez, who was named to the post in February, said the voluntary commitments by Google shouldn’t be considered a precedent for the agency’s enforcement practices.
“When there is consensus among a majority of commissioners who find a violation, that should be embodied into a consent decree,” Ramirez said in response to a question from Lee.
Ramirez, an intellectual property lawyer and a law school classmate of President Barack Obama, has been on the commission since April 2010.
The FTC investigation, which was overseen by Ramirez’s predecessor Jon Leibowitz, who stepped down in February after eight years at the agency, looked into allegations that Google manipulated its search algorithms to promote its own products and services, harming competitors and consumers.
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