Google (GOOG) is constantly under antitrust scrutiny these days, whether it’s for large acquisitions into new markets such as its proposed ITA deal or for its general dominance in search. The company has faced antitrust investigations in Europe. But now Google faces possible antitrust hearings in the U.S. Senate .
Senator Herb Kohl (Democrat from Wisconsin), who is the Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights, announced his subcommittee’s agenda today for the 112th Congress. One of the planned agenda items is a probe into Google’s “dominance over Internet search” and “allegations raised by e-commerce websites that compete with Google that they are being treated unfairly in search ranking, and in their ability to purchase search advertising.”
That would primarily be the online travel industry and its “FairSearch” consortium which is trying to block the ITA deal. In general, Google doesn’t buy too many e-commerce businesses—the failed attempt to buy Groupon notwithstanding. And ITA itself is more of an information services company than a pure e-commerce company, but the deal could certainly impact online travel purchases.
Here is the language from the Senator’s release, pertaining to the issue it wants to address:
Competition in Online Markets/Internet Search Issues
Access to the wealth of information and e-commerce on the Internet is essential for consumers and business alike. As the Internet continues to grow in importance to the national economy, businesses and consumers, the Subcommittee will strive to ensure that this sector remains competitive, that Internet search is fair to its users and customers, advertisers have sufficient choices, and that consumers’ privacy is guarded. In recent years, the dominance over Internet search of the world’s largest search engine, Google, has increased and Google has increasingly sought to acquire e-commerce sites in myriad businesses. In this regard, we will closely examine allegations raised by e-commerce websites that compete with Google that they are being treated unfairly in search ranking, and in their ability to purchase search advertising. We also will continue to closely examine the impact of further acquisitions in this sector.
The thing is that I don’t think anyone has alleged that Google’s travel search results is treating competitors unfairly. The argument is that it could end up treating them unfairly. It’s all hypothetical at this point. Of course, if the Senate does decide to hold antitrust hearings (at this point no specific hearings are scheduled, it’s just an agenda item for the subcommittee), the discussion will no doubt range far beyond e-commerce into all sorts of other antitrust arguments.
Now, if Eric Schmidt becomes Commerce Secretary, for which side will he have to testify?