Federal regulators are poised to hit Google Inc. with subpoenas, launching a broad, formal investigation into whether the Internet giant has abused its dominance in Web-search advertising, people familiar with the matter said.
The civil probe, which has the potential to reshape how companies compete on the Internet, is the most serious legal threat yet to the 12-year-old company, though it wouldn’t necessarily lead to any federal allegations of wrongdoing against Google.
While Google has faced several antitrust probes in recent years, the U.S. has limited its investigations largely to reviews of the company’s mergers and acquisitions. The new inquiry, by contrast, will examine fundamental issues relating to Google’s core search-advertising business, its biggest money maker, said the people familiar with the matter.
Many policy watchers think the Google probe ultimately could be as much of a watershed event for antitrust policy as the Justice Department’s landmark lawsuit against Microsoft Corp. in the 1990s.
Microsoft avoided being broken up, but industry and antitrust experts say the legal assault on the company—and its aftermath—helped check Microsoft’s ability to exploit its dominance in personal-computer operating systems to control other technology sectors. The long-running case also distracted the company from its operations and tarnished its public images—risks that might also face Google.
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