Google: FTC and European Commission threaten legal action

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Internet giant Google is set to face a two-pronged assault from both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the European Commission as they both ready legal action in response to how the firm promotes its own services on search results.

To rub further salt in the wounds, and in a similar vein to the stand-off between the FTC and Microsoft back in 1998, the FTC chairman, Jonathan Leibowitz, has reportedly given Google a deadline to meet within a matter of days to either sign a consent decree covering its future actions online - or face a lawsuit.

The lawsuit in 1998 eventually saw Microsoft convicted of antitrust offences.

Speaking to the Guardian, Bradley Shear, a US-based lawyer who specialises in technology, said, Google may opt to sign a consent decree just to avoid any potential litigation.

He said: "If Google refuses to settle and the FTC files a lawsuit, the FTC may also decide to open an investigation into Google's other practices, such as its privacy policy changes from earlier this year."

European Commission antitrust commissioner, Joaquin Almunia, has similar concerns to the FTC regarding the issue of how Google promotes its own products with a higher priority over its rivals, for example Google shopping; ensuring they typically stay on the first page. This is something that in SEO terms is the proverbial holy grail - with up to 90% of Google users never typically foraying any further than that elusive first page for their search results.

Almunia's team have actually been investigating Google since 2010, but a potential problem for them could be that if they decide to tackle Google over this issue, they would also need to address the issue of PPC adverts which also go to the top of search results in the firm's search engine.

In his blog, The Guardian's Charles Arthur, said, sources in Brussels had told The Guardian that Almunia could issue a statement in early December if the ongoing negotiations with Google failed.

Arthur also said The Guardian understood FTC staff had passed files to its five commissioners who would then have to make a majority decision on whether to take action against the Internet giant or instead issue a consent decree.

This is not the first time that Google has faced the FTC's wrath, with the pair tangling over two similar cases in the last couple of years alone.

The first, involving Google's Buzz social network in March 2011,  saw the firm punished with 20 years of independent audits of its privacy policies. The other saw the firm face a staggering $22.5 million fine in August of this year - issued because the FTC ruled that Google deliberately ignored the Apple browser, Safari's cookie protections - a wrongdoing that the firm refused admission of.

Fearing potential outside regulation of how Google rank their search results, the firm even commissioned  law professor Eugene Volokh, of the University of California, to defend their case.

He said that search engine results: "are all, at their core, editorial judgments about what users are likely to find interesting and valuable. And all these exercises of editorial judgment are fully protected by the First Amendment."

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