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FTC taps McVeigh prosecutor for Google antitrust investigation

What would it take to win an antitrust lawsuit against the world’s largest search engine? A highly successful prosecutor is a good first step for the Federal Trade Commission, which has launched an investigation into Google’s business practices. The agency has hired an attorney who is best known for winning a death sentence against Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Although there’s no guarantee the investigation will result in a trial, the hiring of the former Department of Justice prosecutor is a strong sign the FTC is considering commercial litigation against the Internet giant.

The FTC announced last week that it was hiring the former U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor, who at 49 years old has never lost a case. Currently an attorney for a New York-based law firm of more than 700 lawyers, she’s been charged with leading a team of prosecutors chosen by the FTC to determine whether Google violated antitrust regulations.

At the heart of the issue is whether Google abused its position in the search engine market to promote its own products over its rivals in search results. Included in the investigation is Google’s social search feature, which pulls content from Google+ into search results and makes contacts and pages from the social networking service more readily searchable — another form of bias in Google’s search results, the FTC has suggested. The search engine is also suspected of increasing advertising rates for competitors.

The current investigation against Google isn’t the first. The European Commission began conducting its own investigation before the FTC’s began, and is expected to decide in the next few weeks whether to pursue legal action.

Right now, the FTC insists that the new attorney hire doesn’t mean it will file a lawsuit against Google. But insiders say the move sends a very strong signal. An attorney hired to lead the antitrust case against Microsoft Corp. in 1994 says the FTC tends not to bring in outside counsel unless it’s very serious about moving forward with litigation. And the attorney the agency has chosen appears to be fired up and ready.

“Technology is transforming our society,” she told the New York Times. “In society, it impacts privacy, competition, our interactions with other people — just about everything. Working on the investigation will be a great challenge.”

Source: Bloomberg, “Weiss, Greenberg, Latham, Linklaters: Business of Law,” Elizabeth Amon, April 27, 2012

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