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Google faces new US antitrust scrutiny, this time over smartphones

Like European authorities, the US Federal Trade Commission has begun looking into how Google treats mobile apps that compete with its own, Bloomberg says.

Google's Android software powers most smartphones sold today. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google's antitrust difficulties in the United States may not be over.

The US Federal Trade Commission has begun the early stages of an investigation into Google's Android operating system, according to a Bloomberg report Friday that cites unnamed sources. At issue is whether Google requires use of its own services on Android devices and prevents others from installing their own, the report said.

Google has invested heavily in Android, the software that powers most smartphones sold today, and has carved out a position of power in the smartphone market through partnerships with companies including Samsung, LG Electronics, Huawei and Motorola.

If a full-blown antitrust clampdown takes place, services like navigation, search, Web browsing, music and other smartphone tools could become very different for millions of Android customers. Google doesn't make money directly from Android, which it gives away for free. But it uses Android to drive customers to its core services, including Gmail, Google Maps, YouTube and search, which is Google's biggest moneymaker.

This isn't the first time Google has been investigated for antitrust matters. The Mountain View, California, company has faced multiple inquiries by US and EU authorities. The FTC closed its investigation into Google search two years ago with little harm to Google. But the European Commission's long-running case is still waiting for the Web giant to satisfy officials that it is not using Google search results to promote its own services ahead of rivals. The EU launched a separate investigation into Android earlier this year after hearing complaints from businesses including Microsoft, Nokia and Expedia.

As of the second quarter, 82 percent of smartphones used Android worldwide, compared with 15 percent for Apple's iOS operating system, according to analyst firm Gartner. In the US, Google controls 65 percent of the smartphone market, according to the latest figures from Kantar Worldpanel.

The FTC, which is responsible for upholding consumer interests by rooting out unscrupulous or anticompetitive business practices, will seek evidence that Google thwarted services and apps competing with Google's own, the report said. That could include alternative Web browsers to Google Chrome.

One key tenet of antitrust law is whether a company that is dominant in one area -- mobile operating systems, for example -- uses that market power to promote bundled products at the expense of competitors and, ultimately, consumer choice.

Early investigations can grow more serious or be dropped. FTC staff can then recommend a case be brought against Google, but such a move is contingent on a vote by FTC commissioners.

Google and the FTC didn't respond to requests for comment.