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Senator presses FTC to reopen Google antitrust case as EU Commissioner comes to town

Senators are trying to stir up a case in D.C., but Google's bigger concern is in Brussels.

Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

As European regulators dangle the antitrust hammer above Google’s head, the search engine’s rivals are trying feverishly to stir up similar charges in Washington, D.C.

Case in point: At a Senate Judiciary hearing on Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal pushed for the Federal Trade Commission to crack open a new case against Google for preferential treatment of its own content in search results. The senator’s primary witness was Tim Wu, the former FTC adviser (and current New York Attorney General consigliere) who rather publicly reversed his position on the case.

For certain search results, like the weather, Wu claimed it’s kosher for Google to move its own results to the top. For others, namely local search options, he claimed it’s not.

“What’s been proven is that, in certain areas, Google is manipulating its search in an anticompetitive way,” he said at the Senate hearing. “I think Google is, at this point, at a different position than it was then. There’s stronger evidence of consumer harm now than when the FTC closed its investigation.”

The FTC ended its investigation in 2013 in a decision that was subsequently flooded with controversy. Wu supported the decision at the time, but changed course in a research paper published last summer funded by Google’s arch-gadfly, Yelp.

Orrin Hatch, a Republican senator, raised a similar issue with the FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez last month. Ramirez swatted down those charges then, and the odds of the FTC opening another such politically charged case seem pretty low.

Google’s bigger concern comes from the European Union. Tomorrow, the EU antitrust commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, arrives in D.C. for a series of meetings and talks. She is currently weighing a case against Google for its comparative shopping product, an investigation into Android and a potential probe into a number of other services.

Several sources said Vestager will not level any charges while she is on U.S. soil this week, but people in Brussels expect movement, particularly on the Android case, to come very soon.

Both Google and the FTC declined to comment. If you’re the type who finds Senate hearings riveting, here’s the exchange between Blumenthal and Wu:

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