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FTC may still take Google to court

The chairman of the Federal Trade Commission said today that the agency is "in the middle" of its investigation into Google's business practices and has not yet decided whether to bring a case against the search giant.

Chairman Jon Leibowitz, appearing at the D10 conference in California, also denied that the FTC's recent hiring of a top litigator means that a court battle against Google is imminent.

"At this point, all we're doing is collecting information and trying to think through these complex issues", Leibowitz said of the Google investigation. "We're in the middle of the process and we'll try to resolve where we are in the not too distant future".

In June 2011, Google said the FTC had started a "review of our business", but did not get specific on what types of documents the agency wanted. In September, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt appeared on Capitol Hill to defend his company's business practices.

When asked by D10 moderator Walt Mossberg why the FTC had started looking into Google, Leibowitz said there had been "allegations that the search results on Google have changed or evolved over the years, that they may be anti-competitive". But there are also "other issues that folks have raised with us that we're looking into", he said.

Leibowitz stressed, however, that the FTC will not bring a case "where the evidence isn't there".

"We're trying to figure out if the evidence is there and what the theories are", he said.

In April, there were reports that the FTC hired a well-known outside attorney, Beth A. Wilkinson, which many believed to be a sign that the agency would take Google to court.

Leibowitz today confirmed Wilkinson's hiring, but denied the move was any sort of indication as to how the case would go. "When you have the opportunity to get someone of Beth's stature and abilities ... you always take her up on it", Leibowitz said.

"It doesn't mean we've decided to bring a case at all", he continued. "It just means that we have very competent counsel that can go toe-to-toe with [Google's] very comptent counsel".

Leibowitz acknowledged that the move probably raised some eyebrows, but in reality, hiring Wilkinson "ensures that we have a really terrific litigator if we need one". She also provides an outside view, which can be helpful in the rather "myopic" D.C. environment, Leibowitz said.