Google-DoubleClick Deal Cleared by the FTC

Despite complaints by leading privacy advocates, the long history of privacy concerns related to DoubleClick, explanations as to why privacy must be considered part of the anti-trust concerns, and concerns about possible links between the FTC commissioner and DoubleClick, the FTC has cleared Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick.

The FTC Statement on the Google-DoubleClick merger is here (PDF), where they conclude, with a 4-1 vote, that “After carefully reviewing the evidence, we have concluded that Google’s proposed acquisition of DoubleClick is unlikely to substantially lessen competition.”

On the privacy issue, the majority argues they do not have the authority to rule on the basis of consumer privacy:

Although such issues may present important policy questions for the Nation, the sole purpose of federal antitrust review of mergers and acquisitions is to identify and remedy transactions that harm competition.  Not only does the Commission lack legal authority to require conditions to this merger that do not relate to antitrust, regulating the privacy requirements of just one company could itself pose a serious detriment to competition in this vast and rapidly evolving industry.

The sole dissenter on the FTC panel, Commissioner Harbour, stated (PDF):

I dissent because I make alternate predictions about where this market is heading, and the transformative role the combined Google/DoubleClick will play if the proposed acquisition is consummated.  If the Commission closes its investigation at this time, without imposing any conditions on the merger, neither the competition nor the privacy interests of consumers will have been adequately addressed.

In her dissent, Harbour focuses on the key privacy concerns:

The parties claim to place a high value on protecting consumer privacy.  In various fora, both public and private, senior corporate officials have offered assurances that the combined firm will not use consumer data inappropriately.  But charged as I am with protecting the interests of consumers, I am uncomfortable accepting the merging parties’ nonbinding representations at face value.  The truth is, we really do not know what Google/DoubleClick can or will do with its trove of information about consumers’ Internet habits.  The merger creates a firm with vast knowledge of consumer preferences,  subject to very little accountability.

And she concludes:

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.

I do not doubt that this merger has the potential to create some efficiencies, especially from the perspective of advertisers and publishers.  But it has greater potential to harm competition, and it also threatens privacy.  By closing its investigation without imposing any conditions or other safeguards, the Commission is asking consumers to bear too much of the risk of both types of harm.

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