DOJ investigating e-book pricing, official says

Lawmakers call on the DOJ and FTC to look closely at Google's search dominance and acquisitions

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating anticompetitive behavior in the pricing of e-books, joining the European Union, the head of the agency's antitrust division said Wednesday.

Sharis Pozen, acting assistant attorney general in charge of the DOJ's antitrust division, didn't name the targets of the agency's e-book probe, but the E.U.'s investigation focuses on Apple and five e-book publishers. Pozen announced the investigation during testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee's competition subcommittee.

Pozen didn't elaborate on the e-book investigation, but her testimony was the first time the DOJ has said it's looking into e-book pricing. A DOJ spokeswoman declined to say that Apple is the target of the DOJ probe, but said the agency is working with the E.U. and state attorneys general.

Apple did not respond to a request for comments on Pozen's statement.

Pozen and Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, told lawmakers that their agencies are keeping a close eye on the tech industry for possible antitrust violations.

Some members of the subcommittee urged the DOJ and FTC to closely examine Google's acquisitions and its search dominance during a hearing Wednesday.

The DOJ and FTC are more active on antitrust issues than in the past, but U.S. and transnational companies are still "getting away with incredible violations of the law," said Representative John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat.

Google is among the companies that have "acted repeatedly with impunity, engaging in unlawful, anticompetitive practices," he added.

Google declined to comment.

Representative Mel Watt, a North Carolina Democrat, asked whether the DOJ and FTC should consider online privacy issues when looking into antitrust issues. Google's acquisition of online advertising firm DoubleClick in 2008 led to questions about online privacy and tracking and whether those issues should be considered in antitrust deliberations, he said.

Consumers sacrifice some privacy for using online services, but lawmakers need to find a balance, Watt said. "Because I am ever more convinced that one of the most important things we can do as policymakers is to preserve our privacy protections online, I am very interested in your perspectives on the future of privacy and how it relates to, or plays out, under the antitrust laws," he said to Leibowitz and Pozen.

Watt asked Leibowitz and Pozen to respond to his questions about privacy and antitrust in writing.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags governmentGoogleApplelegalantitrustU.S. Department of JusticeU.S. Federal Trade CommissionJon LeibowitzU.S. House of Representatives Judiciary CommitteeJohn Conyers Jr.Sharis Pozen

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