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Android added to FTC’s Google investigation, says report

Aug 11, 2011 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive — views

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is reportedly looking into alleged anti-competitive behavior on the part of Google, including forcing Android OEMs to use its own services. According to The Wall Street Journal, the FTC is said to be preparing subpoenas related to the Android issue, which follows up on an existing investigation into whether Google's search practices violate antitrust law.

The Federal Trade Commission is reportedly expanding its investigation into Google's search business to include the company's Android mobile operating system and web services. The Wall Street Journal reported the FTC is investigating whether Google prohibits smartphone makers that make phones based on Android from using rivals' services.

The FTC is preparing to send out subpoenas to companies in the hope of collecting documents and evidence in its investigation, says the story. The Android investigation extends a previous inquiry by the FCC into allegations that Google's search engine practices violate antitrust law.

The FTC has also made inquiries into whether Google favors its own Places local search service, Google Product Search, and Google Finance. Specifically, the Journal said the FTC is gauging allegations that Google takes reviews of local businesses from services such as Yelp and CitySearch to use on Places and then demotes the rivals' services products.

Yelp, CitySearch, and others have reportedly voiced their complaints to the FTC on the matter. In an effort to show that it doesn't violate antitrust laws, Google last month removed snippets of reviews published from these companies from Places.

Earlier allegations of Google strong-arming Android OEMs

It is unclear what specific services or products are under scrutiny in the new Android-related thrust of the investigation. In March, a Bloomberg report said that Android device vendors were complaining to the U.S. Justice Department over Google's increasingly heavy-handed pressure discouraging UI customizations of Android. 

The search giant was said to be holding out on licensing Google apps for Android, such as Google Maps and Google Voice, to force compliance with a "pure Google" UI.

Others told the publication that Google tried to block Verizon's inclusion of Microsoft's Bing search engine on some Android devices. All these reports were later denied by Google's Android chief Andy Rubin (pictured).

In April, South Korean search powers NHN and Daum Communications lodged complaints against Google with the country's Fair Trade Commission. Google was accused of blocking Korean phone carriers and handset makers from adding their search applications to Android devices. NNH, for example, alleged that Google delayed certification of the use of Google-enhanced versions of Android for handset makers that refused to offer Google Search.

Still, we have yet to see any solid evidence that Google forces Android OEMs, such as Motorola Mobility, HTC, and Samsung, to use its search engine over Microsoft Bing or Yahoo. Bing powers some Verizon Wireless phones, while Yahoo provides search for some AT&T handsets.

According to ComScore this week, Google continues to cling to the 65 percent U.S. search share it's held for the last two years, followed by Yahoo at 16.1 percent and Bing at 14.4 percent. Also this week, a Pew Research survey reported that search and email are still the leading online activities in the U.S., with 92 percent of adult Internet users surveyed using both with regularity.

A Skyhook angle?

The FTC's inquiry may instead concern allegations made against Google by Skyhook Wireless, which is suing the search engine for interfering with its business and patent infringement. In a tortious interference case filed last September, Skyhook claimed Google coerced Motorola and Samsung to stop using its location database software in favor of Google's own location database.

Skyhook CEO Ted Morgan told eWEEK Google wants OEMs such as Motorola and Samsung to use its software because it gives Google control of location information related to users that it sees as crucial for improving search services.

Google, which has denied engaging in anticompetitive practices, reiterated to the Journal that it intends to comply fully with the FTC's inquiry. "We understand that with success comes scrutiny," a Google spokesperson was quoted as saying. "We're happy to answer any questions they have about our business."

More legal woes for Google

One company that is all too eager to help the FTC is Microsoft. The company will likely use Google's legal woes — and its experience in knowing what federal regulators look for in such cases from its own antitrust suit from the Justice Department a decade ago — to try to bolster its own search business.

Last week, Google engaged in some mutual trash-talking with Microsoft regarding patents. Google senior vice president and chief legal officer David Drummond started it off with a blog entry claiming the U.S. Justice Department is "looking into whether Microsoft and Apple acquired the Nortel patents for anticompetitive means."

Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, tweeted back that Microsoft and the other members of the "Rockstar Bidco LP" consortium that recently won court permission to purchase Nortel Networks' patent portfolio, had invited Google to join the consortium.

Google is already facing a serious patent infringement suit against Android from Oracle. The latter is seemingly close to convincing a California judge the company infringed — and possibly willfully so — on Java software used to form the core of Android.

Clint Boulton is a writer for eWEEK. Eric Brown also contributed to this report.

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