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U.S. Justice Department Readies Google Antitrust Probe: Report

A DOJ probe of search and other businesses would come as Google grapples with multiple investigations, and some hefty fines, by European regulators

The U.S. Justice Department is preparing to investigate Google for potential violations of antitrust law, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The probe will look at Google's practices related to search and "other businesses" within the Mountain View, Calif.-based internet giant, anonymous sources told the newspaper. The sources told the Journal that the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department have recently been in talks over which agency would oversee the Google antitrust probe, but the commission ceded control of any investigation to the DOJ.

If true, that federal probe will add to a series of investigations and regulatory actions that Google is grappling with from the European Commission, the European Union’s regulatory watchdog.

[Related: EU Hits Google Again With $1.69 Billion Antitrust Fine Over Advertising Practices]

CRN has reached out to Google and the Department of Justice for comment.

During his nomination hearings in January, Attorney General William Barr told senators, without prompting, that he's interested in exploring the idea of scrutinizing big tech companies for antitrust violations.

"I think a lot of people wonder how such huge behemoths that now exist in Silicon Valley have taken shape under the nose of the antitrust enforcers," Barr said.

Google has survived a previous antitrust probe, conducted in 2012 by the FTC.

The FTC argued that following its acquisition of Motorola, Google sought or threatened injunctions against competitors' products through the International Trade Commission, despite prior promises from Motorola to license relevant patents. A settlement reached at the start of 2013 required Google to meet prior commitments to license key patents under fair, non-discriminatory terms.

Last August, Orrin Hatch, at the time a Republican senator from Utah, wrote the FTC urging regulators to investigate potential anti-competitive practices in Google's search and digital advertising businesses.

Hatch, then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee who has since retired from politics, said Google once placed restrictions on publishers' displaying search advertisements from its competitors, but loosened some of those restrictions when faced by the FTC and European Commission complaints.

Last July, Google was hit with a massive $5.05 billion fine from the European Union, which found that the company violated antitrust rules by imposing "illegal restrictions" on Android device makers and mobile network operators, allegedly aimed at bolstering Google's search engine.

A few months later, Makan Delrahim, the U.S. assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, told a Senate committee he couldn't rule out the possibility of an inquiry into Google's Android business, according to a report in the New York Post.

A U.S. probe would come as Google confronts multiple challenges to its business practices in Europe.

Less than two weeks ago, the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner, an Irish regulatory body that serves as the European Union's watchdog for upholding personal data protections, said it would examine whether Google Ad Exchange tracked users or stored data in violation of the GDPR law that went into effect one year ago.

The European Union’s antitrust chief, Margrethe Vestager, wouldn’t rule out European regulators breaking up Google, in comments she made in March of 2018.

Vestager said EU regulators harbored "grave concerns" about Google's internet dominance, and were toying with the idea of breaking Google into smaller entities to protect competition.

Vestager said that dismantling the internet giant could prove to be one of the only viable options that could prevent Google from becoming too large to challenge.

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