FTC Will Investigate Google + DoubleClick: Did Microsoft Make the Call?

Early this morning, The New York Times reported that the US Federal Trade Commission would be expanding its otherwise normal investigation into the prospective merger deal between contextual advertising giant Google and display advertising giant DoubleClick, by issuing Google a "second request" for more information late last week.

The FTC has issued no statement on the affair, and has declined to answer questions, though the Times report and other subsequent news items are raising the question of whether the FTC is acting on its own accord, or at the behest of others - as one theory has it, Microsoft.

The NYT report cites the Electronic Privacy Information Center as having perhaps filed the pinnacle complaint just days after the merger announcement. The EPIC complaint charges that a merger of the two companies would lead to a merger of their databases and the technologies behind them.

"The acquisition of DoubleClick will permit Google to track both a person's Internet searches and a person's web site visits," reads EPIC's April complaint to the FTC. "This could impact the privacy interests of 233 million Internet users in North America, 314 million Internet users in Europe, and more than 1.1 billion Internet users around the world."

DoubleClick apparently took EPIC's allegations seriously enough to publish responses explaining why its database is distinct from Google's, and will remain so. A new DoubleClick brochure (PDF available here) explains how its DART technology extrapolates keyword performance data from user visits with respect to placement of keywords on Google, Yahoo, MSN, and smaller services such as Ask.com.

Based on that explanation, one could conclude that the database of DART's observations could not be merged with the database Google maintains of user searches.

To underscore that, DoubleClick released a statement cited by Financial Times this afternoon, stating there isn't really a "DART database" unto itself anyway.

"Information collected by DoubleClick DART ad serving technology belongs to DoubleClick's clients and not to DoubleClick," the statement reads. "Any and all information collected by DoubleClick is, and will remain, the property of the company's clients. Ownership rights, like the other terms of DoubleClick's client contracts, will be unaffected by any acquisition."

But the FT report also goes so far as to cite Microsoft as the "squeaky wheel" in the effort to have the FTC or Justice Dept. investigate the merger proposal, having publicly complained five days earlier than EPIC that a combination of the two companies could be anti-competitive.

"This proposed acquisition raises serious competition and privacy concerns in that it gives the Google DoubleClick combination unprecedented control in the delivery of online advertising, and access to a huge amount of consumer information by tracking what customers do online," wrote Microsoft's senior counsel Brad Smith on April 15. "We think this merger deserves close scrutiny from regulatory authorities to ensure a competitive online advertising market."

This despite the fact that Microsoft was reportedly the earlier bidder in the race for DoubleClick.

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