Commentary

Just An Online Minute... One Hurdle Down: FTC Approves GoogleClick

Despite opposition from some consumer groups and privacy advocates, as well as Google rival Microsoft, the Federal Trade Commission this morning approved Google's $3.1 billion merger with DoubleClick.

"After carefully reviewing the evidence, we have concluded that Google's proposed acquisition of DoubleClick is unlikely to substantially lessen competition," the commission wrote in its 4-1 decision.

Commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour dissented. "I am convinced that the combination of Google and DoubleClick has the potential to profoundly alter the 21 century Internet-based economy -- in ways we can imagine, and in ways we cannot," she wrote.

But today's FTC approval doesn't mean the merger's a sure thing. European regulators still must clear the deal -- and the authorities in Europe appear concerned with both the antitrust and privacy implications of the deal.

One European antitrust agency has already made preliminary findings that the deal may harm competition, and is now in the process of an in-depth review, slated to be completed by April 2.

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The deal is also under review by privacy regulators in Europe. One of the concerns of privacy advocates is that Google will combine its information about people's search queries with DoubleClick data about their Web-surfing history. That issue seems to deeply trouble the authorities in Europe -- which has laws specifically protecting people's privacy.

The United States has no comprehensive privacy laws, but at least some FTC commissioners appeared concerned with whether online ad techniques compromise people's personal information. Though the FTC declined to block the merger on privacy grounds, the Commission did put out a proposed set of voluntary industrywide privacy guidelines addressing data collection and behavioral targeting. Among the suggestions are that companies "should obtain affirmative express consent from affected consumers before using data in a manner materially different from promises the company made when it collected the data."

That suggestion would have affected at least one big online player that recently attempted a new targeting initiative -- Facebook. That company's ill-fated Beacon program, which spread information about members' purchases to their friends, clearly would have violated that principle. And, while Facebook has since changed its policy, the fact that the company launched the program in the first place shows a need for some type of oversight here.

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