FTC Investigation Into Google/ DoubleClick: Boom or Bust?

The Federal Trade Commission's preliminary antitrust investigation into the Google/DoubleClick deal has more to do with marketplace competition than with privacy, say some industry analysts--and may even help the search giant further shape the future of the online information industry.

The company's privacy challenges span the globe--from scrutiny by an independent European Union data-privacy panel, to its scuffed reputation for content monitoring in China, to being named recently in a formal complaint filed by consumer privacy groups including EPIC-- but those factors may not influence the FTC's antitrust decision.

While an FTC spokesperson would only confirm that the agency had "begun an investigation," the agency has served Google with a detailed list of questions about the DoubleClick acquisition, known as a "second request" for information. Some in the industry feel this points toward an initial FTC assessment of the deal as an antitrust concern, but others point to the recent flurry of similar ad network acquisitions by industry giants as Google's first logical defense.

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With regard to transparency in information-gathering and content serving, "advertisers and consumers face some of the same concerns with each of the deals that are up right now," said Jonah Stein, privacy expert and senior SEM director, Alchemist Media. "While the privacy issue has no real legal standing in an antitrust discussion, [by] using Google, the FTC can set a precedent for how the rest of these mergers are handled in terms of privacy."

If the FTC uses Google/DoubleClick as a template, then Microsoft, Yahoo and WPP will need to follow that lead in order for their acquisitions to be approved--a factor insiders say will encourage Google to gladly sit at the negotiating table.

Google may need to "give to get," but if successful in setting a standard, Stein noted, that standard "will be easier for them to live by than some of the competition."

This precedent-setting factor is what causes some to view the FTC review as equal parts challenge and opportunity. If Google gets its deal approved in a way that protects its ability to deliver targeted advertising, then it will actually come out far ahead. In a statement, Google acknowledged how important such a positive outcome would be for maintaining industry-wide trust:

"User, advertiser and publisher trust is paramount to the success of our business and to the success of the acquisition," said Nicole Wong, Deputy General Counsel, Google. "We can't imagine taking any actions that would undermine these relationships or the trust people have in using our products and services."

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