US Justice Department is preparing a potential anti-trust investigation of Google

Google is back under the regulatory microscope in the United States, around six years after a  federal agency probed it on grounds  that its business practices threatened competitors.
Google is back under the regulatory microscope in the United States, around six years after a federal agency probed it on grounds that its business practices threatened competitors.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - The US Justice Department (DOJ) has taken early steps toward opening a federal anti-trust investigation into Google, according to three people familiar with the matter, marking a new chapter in the tech giant's war with regulators around the world who contend the company is too large and threatens rivals and consumers.

The move thrusts Google back under the regulatory microscope in the United States roughly six years after another federal agency probed the search and advertising behemoth on grounds that its business practices threatened competitors - yet spared the company from major punishments.

The DOJ's anti-trust division, led by Mr Makan Delrahim, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Google declined comment. The news was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The exact focus of the DOJ's investigation is unclear. The DOJ began work on the matter after brokering an agreement with the government's other anti-trust agency, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), to take the lead on further anti-trust oversight of Google, according to the people familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the deliberations are confidential.

The DOJ's probe could threaten Google with a harsh examination of its sprawling business, which ranges from its dominant position in search and advertising to its Android mobile operating system and newer gambits, such as self-driving cars.

Its expansive footprint increasingly has drawn the attention of Democrats and Republicans in Washington, who say that Google - and its peers in Silicon Valley - have become too large and should potentially be broken up.

Some Democrats seeking the presidency in 2020, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren have explicitly threatened more oversight of the tech industry if they win the White House.


The Trump administration has also sought to study the matter: The DOJ convened state attorneys general last year to explore the competition concerns posed by Google and other big tech companies.

In its last tangle with anti-trust regulators, FTC officials probed Google to determine if its search algorithm - and its practices of giving better placement to its services over rivals - threatened competitors.

It also probed Google's advertising practices, as well as the means by which the company licensed some of the critical patents involving mobile phones to rivals.

But the FTC opted in 2013 against forcing Google to alter broad swaths of its business, including the way it displays search results. Nor did it seek to break Google apart - a move that drew the ire of some critics who felt the government should have challenged Google similarly to the way it did Microsoft in the 1990s.

In contrast, Google has face more significant anti-trust scrutiny abroad. The European Union has been a leading force, where regulators have handed down roughly US$9 billion (S$12.37 billion) in fines against the company over the last three years. Other EU probes targeting Google are ongoing.