Does Google’s dominant position in Internet search pose an antitrust threat? That's a question for Congress, says Senator Michael Lee (R-UT) who last week called for the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee to conduct an oversight hearing on Google. In a letter to Herb Kohl, chairman of Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, Lee, Ranking Member of the Subcommittee, urged hearings, suggesting that Google’s dominant position creates “myriad opportunities” for anticompetitive behavior. “Given its prominent position in the search and search advertising markets,” Lee writes, “Google in some ways acts as a gatekeeper over a variety of internet businesses...commentators have expressed concern that Google may be using its position to harm specialized or so-called vertical search sites.”
Lee’s interest in Google comes as the DoJ is in the process of approving Google’s proposed acquisition of ITA Software, which Lee maintains could provide Google with “the ability to control the travel search vertical market,” to the potential detriment of a rising tech sector is Lee’s home state of Utah. In his letter, however, Lee’s concerns are broader than the ITA deal.
“Google gathers an enormous amount of consumer information through its related products and services, including Gmail, Google Checkout, Google Books, and Google Web History," Lee writes. “The combination of behavioral and personal information enables Google to generate consumer data that is unprecedented in scale and scope. Antitrust enforcement may unlock beneficial competition for the protection of user privacy and avert the need for additional privacy regulation.”
Indeed, Google has been on the DoJ’s antitrust radar for some time—at its 2010 fairness hearing, the DoJ blasted Google’s proposed class action settlement with authors and publishers as anticompetitive, and told judge Denny Chin that with respect to antitrust issues a DoJ investigation was “ongoing,” and that the agency was looking at “many products, including the search product.” And Google has already become a target of regulators in Europe. In September, 2009, the European Union held a hearing on the Google Books settlement, and late in 2010, the European Commission reportedly launched an investigation into Google’s practices after three “vertical search engines” submitted formal complaints alleging anticompetitive practices at Google.