WASHINGTON – Google's rivals have again prompted antitrust investigators at the Federal Trade Commission to examine the company's business practices, and staff members have begun a preliminary look at whether Google abuses its market dominance in online display advertising, like the banner ads on Web pages.
People who have been contacted in connection with the inquiry said that the F.T.C. had begun asking questions about Google's practices, specifically whether the company was bundling advertising services together in a way that prohibited rivals from competing for the business of advertisers.
The F.T.C. said in December 2007 that it would monitor Google's practices in that area. At that time, the commission found that Google's proposed acquisition of DoubleClick, an online advertising company that specialized in display ads, was "unlikely to substantially lessen competition."
"We want to be clear, however," the F.T.C. wrote at the time, "that we will continue to watch these markets and, should Google engage in unlawful tying or other anticompetitive conduct, the commission intends to act quickly."
Officials at the F.T.C. and Google declined to comment Friday on the possibility of a new inquiry, which was first reported Thursday evening by Bloomberg News. One person close to the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the inquiry is in its early stages, said the F.T.C. had not yet contacted Google about a new antitrust inquiry.
Another person who has been briefed on the F.T.C.'s work said that the commissioners themselves had not approved the issuance of subpoenas or civil investigative demands, which would be part of any formal investigation.
The F.T.C. closed an antitrust investigation of Google's search business less than five months ago, voting unanimously not to proceed with an antitrust case after months of pressure from Google's rivals.
That investigation focused on how Google's search engine presented results of consumer queries, and whether the company purposely gave higher rankings and more prominent display to results that featured its own businesses.
In the new inquiry, according to a person in the advertising business who said he was contacted by the F.T.C., commission staff members asked about Google's practices in providing, or serving, advertisements to customers' Web sites and about the practices of its Ad Exchange, where companies bid on opportunities to aim at certain consumers with ads.
F.T.C. officials were interested in whether Google was tying one application to another by offering below-cost pricing in exchange for a customer's guarantee not to buy ads through Google's competitors, the person said.
At the time it approved the DoubleClick deal, the F.T.C. said it also would monitor issues concerning consumer privacy, including whether the collection of information from one part of Google's business – for example, its search operation – was being used in its other units to unfairly exploit its size and drive rivals from the market.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.