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Google versus trustbusters, a history

A new FTC probe into Google's business practices is just the company's latest run-in with antitrust officials. Here's a recap.

In light of yesterday's news that the Federal Trade Commission has officially launched an investigation into Google's business practices, it seems a good time to review the search giant'srich history in related antitrust matters.

The following is a timeline of some of some of the company's pivotal run-ins with trustbusters.

For its part, Google this morning acknowledged that it had received formal notification from the FTC about its probe and plans to work with the agency in coming months. But it stands by its principles and company mission and suggested the investigation is misguided.

The current FTC investigation appears focused specifically on Google's market power in the search advertising business.

DoubleClick merger approved (December 2007)
Google's first prominent antitrust challenge was a fight for approval of its $3.1 billion acquisition of online ad-serving company DoubleClick. Despite loud complaints from competitors and privacy advocates, the FTC approved the merger in December 2007 after an eight-month review of possible antitrust violations, saying, at the time, that the companies were not direct competitors in any relevant market. Several months later in 2007, the European Commission approved the merger, which was the final hurdle.

Google-Yahoo search deal fails (November 2008)
Google didn't have as much luck in its next major antitrust challenge, a proposed search-ad deal it had brokered with Yahoo in late 2008, under which Yahoo would have placed Google ads on some Yahoo search results, and the companies would have shared the resulting revenue. Google ended up giving up on the deal amid months of scrutiny from Justice Department's antitrust regulators who felt the arrangement denied consumers the benefits of competition. Other objections, of course, came from competitors like Microsoft, as well as the Association of National Advertisers.

The deal's demise was yet another blow to Internet pioneer Yahoo, which was already struggling financially and just getting over an unfriendly acquisition attempt from Microsoft.

Related stories
• Full coverage on the Google antitrust investigation
• In D.C., it's all about beating down Google
• Google's enemy list, a primer

Google Books settlement (July 2009 and beyond)
Google also got in the Justice Department's crosshairs in 2009 as the company was working on its settlement with book publishers over the digital publishing rights to certain books. In July 2009, the agencylaunched a formal investigation into the settlement, citing concerns about anticompetitive practices. The Justice Department initially blocked a first proposal of the settlement and later voiced concerns that the revised settlement still might raise antitrust issues. The settlement, opposed by the likes of Microsoft, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and a coalition called the Open Book Alliance, remains in legal limbo--in March it was rejected by a New York federal district court.

Europe opens search-rank probe; Microsoft files complaint (February 2010 and beyond)
In February 2010, European regulators launched an investigation into how Google ranks search results and advertising after complaints from European businesses such as Foundem, a price comparison site, and Ciao, another price comparison site owned by Microsoft. Those companies--Foundem in particular--had long complained that Google penalized their Web sites in search results under competitive pressure. That led to a formal probe in November 2010.

And then this past March, Microsoft filed its formal complaint with the European Commission alleging that Google is unfairly competing in European markets by rigging its search algorithms, ranking its own services higher than rival products, and impeding access to YouTube content, making it harder for alternative search engines to find videos.

This move was significant in that it focuses on Google's business behavior, as oppose to other potential antitrust probes to date that related more to investments or acquisitions.

FTC backs down on AdMob deal (May 2010)
In May 2010, Google convinced the FTC to back down from antitrust concerns over its acquisition of mobile-advertising leader AdMob for $750 million. And it was pretty clear that Apple, with its timely iAd announcement, had something to do with it. Google had heralded Apple's iAd platform as evidence that innovation in mobile advertising would not come from just one company, and that appeared to have been the tipping point for the approval of the deal.

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States raise concerns (late 2010 and beyond)
In late 2010 and early 2011, states started to chime in with their own antitrust complaints against Google. In September 2010, Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbott launched an "antitrust review" of Google's business practices, specifically related to charges it manipulated search results in a case similar to the one that was pending in Europe. Then in March, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine confirmed his office was contemplating a review of the search giant's business practices. And reports also surfaced that Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen was evaluating an investigation over Google's bid to buy travel software company ITA.

ITA buy gets green light (April 2011)
In April, Google won regulatory approvalfor its $700 million deal to buy ITA Software, but the Justice Department intends to keep a close eye on some conditions set forth as part of the deal.

As expected, Google is required to continue licensing ITA's travel technology to rivals for five years on "reasonable and nondiscriminatory" terms. Some of those rivals, such as Kayak and Hotwire, formed to oppose the deal.

But the agency is also requiring Google to forward to it any complaints the company receives from travel competitors upset about where they land in Google's search rankings. It's short of forcing Google to alter its search algorithms, something the company would be loath to do. But it does put the government one step further into Google's core business.

Next up, Admeld scrutiny (June 2011 and beyond)
Not unlike concerns with DoubleClick and AdMob, Google is now expected to face antitrust review by the Justice Department for its latest announced deal to buy advertising company Admeld for $400 million. No surprise here, but worth noting.

Click here for a roundup of the most current stories on Google feeling the antitrust heat.