By Diane Bartz
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The majority of top decision-makers at the Federal Trade Commission believe that an antitrust case should be brought against Google Inc, meaning the search giant could soon be headed into tough negotiations, three people familiar with the matter said.
Four of the FTC commissioners have become convinced after more than a year of investigation that Google illegally used its dominance of the search market to hurt its rivals, while one commissioner is skeptical, the sources said.
All three declined to be named to protect working relationships.
Two of the sources said a decision on how to proceed could come in late November or early December.
A long list of companies has been complaining to the FTC, arguing that the agency should crack down on Google.
Companies rarely talk publicly about their dealings with the FTC, but consumer reviews website Yelp and comparison shopping website Nextag have both complained about Google during open hearings in Congress.
Google rivals specializing in travel, shopping and entertainment have accused Google, the world's No. 1 search engine, of unfairly giving their web sites low quality rankings in search results to steer Internet users away from their websites and toward Google products that provide similar services.
Computer users are overwhelmingly more likely to click on the top results in any search. The low ranking often forces companies to buy more ads on Google to improve their visibility, one source said.
Google has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
Asked about any discussions with the FTC, Google spokeswoman Niki Fenwick said: "We are happy to answer any questions that regulators have about our business." The FTC declined to comment.
During a congressional hearing in September 2011, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt denied that the company manipulated its search results. "May I simply say that I can assure you we've not cooked anything," he told the Senate Judiciary Committee's antitrust panel.
COMPLAINTS PILE UP
The one source said the FTC commissioners have given weight to other complaints that Google refuses to share data that would allow advertisers and developers to create software to compare the value they get on Google to advertising spending on Microsoft's Bing or Yahoo.
In a related issue, the FTC is looking at Google's handling of valuable patents, which are determined to be essential to smartphones. The agency is trying to determine if they are licensed fairly and whether patent infringement lawsuits are used to hamper innovation.
FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said in mid-September that he expected a decision in the case by the end of the year. European regulators are conducting a similar antitrust probe.
If the agency finds that Google broke the law, the FTC and Google could hammer out a settlement that resolves the issues or, if settlement negotiations fail, the matter could end up in a lengthy, expensive court fight.
The FTC announced in April that it had hired high-powered Washington lawyer Beth Wilkinson to lead the probe. The hiring was seen as a sign that the FTC was contemplating filing a lawsuit against Google.
This is not the first run-in that Google has had with the agency.
In August, Google was forced to pay $22.5 million to settle charges it bypassed the privacy settings of customers using Apple Inc's Safari browser. The practice was in violation of a 2011 consent decree with the FTC over a botched rollout of the now defunct social network Buzz.
(Reporting By Diane Bartz; Editing by Karey Wutkowski and Tim Dobbyn)
Earlier on HuffPost:
#6 - ITA Software ($700 million)
<strong>What people said...</strong> <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-04-21/google-said-to-be-in-talks-to-buy-travel-software-maker.html" target="_hplink">Henry Harteveldt</a>, analyst at Forrester Research: "Google's mission is to organize the world's information, and ITA does that for travel" <a href="http://hasbrouck.org/blog/archives/001881.html" target="_hplink">Edward Hasbrouck</a>, author and policy analyst for Consumer Travel Alliance: "Google's purchase of ITA Software is likely to be a bad thing for travelers." <strong>Acquired: 2010</strong> <em>Source: <a href="http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/07/taking-off-with-ita.html" target="_hplink">Google Blog</a></em>
#5 - AdMob ($750 million)
<strong>What people said...</strong> <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/10/technology/companies/10google.html" target="_hplink">Neil Strother</a>, analyst at Forrester Research: "The deal shows that Google is serious about becoming a major player in the mobile advertising ecosystem" <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/10/technology/companies/10google.html" target="_hplink">Marc Rotenberg</a>, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center: "We've reached a point in Google's evolution in which Washington agencies and Congressional committees need to look more closely at the company's dominance of Internet services" <strong>Acquired: 2010</strong> <em>Source: <a href="http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/05/weve-officially-acquired-admob.html" target="_hplink">Google Blog</a></em>
#4 - Waze ($1.1 Billion)
Google <a href="http://allthingsd.com/20130611/google-officially-closes-waze-deal-will-keep-it-independent" target="_hplink">bought mapping startup Waze</a> for $1.1 billion on June 11, 2013, AllThingsD reports.
#3 - YouTube ($1.65 billion)
<strong>What people said...</strong> <a href="http://www.marketwatch.com/story/google-buying-youtube-for-165-bln-as-street-cheers" target="_hplink">Goldman Sachs</a>: "We expect investors to be excited by the strategic opportunities, but they will be skeptical of the $1.65 billion price, given YouTube's early stages" <a href="http://money.cnn.com/2006/10/09/technology/googleyoutube_deal/" target="_hplink">Martin Pyykkonen</a>, analyst at Global Crown Capital: "I would think that a lot of advertisers would be willing to pay a premium for a video search ad opposed to paid search text" <strong>Acquired: 2006</strong> <em>Source: <a href="http://www.google.com/press/pressrel/google_youtube.html" target="_hplink">Google</a></em>
#2 - DoubleClick ($3.1 billion)
<strong>What people said...</strong> <a href="http://www.wired.com/epicenter/tag/doubleclick/" target="_hplink">Federal Trade Commission</a>: "The FTC lacks the legal authority to block the transaction on grounds, or require conditions to this transaction, that do not relate to antitrust" <a href="http://www.wired.com/epicenter/tag/doubleclick/" target="_hplink">Jeff Chester</a>, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy: "The FTC is supposed to protect the privacy of Americans in the digital age. The excuse offered by the majority of the commission-that consumer privacy can't be addressed by current antitrust law-reveals a lack of leadership and determination to protect U.S. consumers" <strong>Acquired: 2008</strong> <em>Source: <a href="http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2008/03/weve-officially-acquired-doubleclick.html" target="_hplink">Google Blog</a></em>
#1 - Motorola Mobility ($12.5 billion)
<strong>What people are saying...</strong> <a href="http://www.businessinsider.com/google-motorola-deal-2011-8" target="_hplink">Henry Blodget</a>, editor-in-chief at Business Insider: "This deal could end up being a disaster" <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeff-jarvis/google-buys-rat-poison_b_927155.html" target="_hplink">Jeff Jarvis</a>, author: "Google buys rat poison" <a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/google/8702125/Google-buys-Motorola-Mobility-market-reaction.html" target="_hplink">Hendi Susanto</a>, analyst at Gabelli & Co: "Google and Motorola will create a stronger hardware - software integration to compete with Apple, Samsung, and HTC." <strong>Acquired: 2011</strong> <em>Source: <a href="http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2011/08/supercharging-android-google-to-acquire.html" target="_hplink">Google Blog</a></em>