After an 18-month investigation into Google's business practices, the Federal Trade Commission is nearing a critical decision on allegations that the Internet giant has unfairly tweaked its popular search engine to tout some of its online services over those of competing firms.
The outcome, however, is far from certain.
Depending on what antitrust regulators have found, experts say, the commission might pursue legal action that could lead to a massive, epic and expensive court trial. In theory, the FTC could try to force Google to sell or close parts of its business or cough up millions in past profits. Or regulators might negotiate a less drastic settlement, such as an agreement that obliges Google to change the way it labels search results.
The legal and technical issues are complex, said Albert Foer, an attorney and president of the American Antitrust Institute. But with Google having "so much control over what people are going to see" when they search the Internet, he added, "the outcome is of great importance to the entire world."
Google has denied wrongdoing, and an FTC spokesman declined to comment this week. But in recent weeks, Bloomberg and Reuters news reports citing unnamed sources have said the FTC staff is recommending that the agency file a lawsuit charging Google with anti-competitive behavior.
The FTC has focused on claims that Google's search results have emphasized its own products, such as online shopping or travel services, while giving less prominence to smaller competitors in those fields.
Officials also reportedly have contacted gadget-makers who use Google's Android mobile software, asking if Google pressured them to block programs that interfere or compete with Google services.
The commission also is looking at whether Google's Motorola Mobility division has complied with legal obligations to let other companies use its patented mobile technology for a reasonable fee.
But it's the search allegations that strike at the core of Google's business, by questioning the elaborate and finely tuned systems that Google employs to answer more than 3 billion queries from the world's Internet users each day.
"This is their heart and soul," said Harry First, a New York University law professor and antitrust expert. "So it would not surprise me if they fight these allegations very vigorously."
For now, Google has taken a low-key approach. While generally declining to comment, the company has pledged to answer regulators' questions.
"We've taken an approach to work with them," Google CEO Larry Page told a tech audience last month. "I'm hopeful that will continue to work well."
Still, he added: "I do think that overregulation of the Internet and restriction of what people can do is a big risk for us."
Google handles more than two-thirds of all Internet search queries posed in the United States, according to research firm comScore. Critics — including online review site Yelp and shopping service Nextag — have claimed their business suffered because Google tweaked its search functions in ways that gave higher prominence to Google services that compete with those companies.