Simon Doyle is a reporter based in Ottawa who specializes in lobbying and public affairs. Follow him on Twitter @sdoyle333.
Google's competitors in Canada are reaching out to the Competition Bureau to help advance its investigation into the search giant as signs emerge that the probe is deepening.
The continuing investigation follows antitrust accusations against Google in Europe and represents a shift from earlier this year, when observers were expecting the Competition Bureau to wrap it up.
The competition regulator launched a probe into Google's advertising and search practices in Canada in 2013, an investigation that could have ramifications for shareholders and Google competitors like Expedia Inc. and TripAdvisor LLC.
Lobbyists for Google competitors are now offering information to the federal agency to help the investigation and the regulator's understanding of the online search and advertising space. Separately, the bureau circulated a letter in April seeking experts in the areas of search engines and online marketing, a move that industry officials see as a sign that the probe is progressing and will continue for some time.
"It's promising from the perspective of those who want it to proceed, that they are seeking an expert," said Melanie Aitken, Canada's former commissioner of competition and now an antitrust and foreign-investment adviser at Bennett Jones in Washington.
The Canadian investigation will take time, she added. "Look at how long the European investigation has taken to get as far as it has," she said.
What's the issue?
Google has 79 per cent of computer search activity in Canada, according to comScore data, and the Competition Bureau investigation is continuing as regulators in the United States and European Union have taken a look.
One of the central questions for regulators is whether Google is unfairly steering its search users away from competing services, such as travel or shopping, toward its own. Google contests any allegations of harm.
In the first instance of antitrust charges against Google, the EU's antitrust chief said last month that Google's search results favoured the company's comparison-shopping service over competitors, and that the commission was also opening an antitrust investigation into Google's Android mobile platform.
The charges, issued by EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager through a statement of objections, gives Google 10 weeks to respond and could result in fines if the charges are proved. This week, Ms. Vestager also opened a broader antitrust investigation into online shopping and any barriers created by e-commerce companies.
The Competition Bureau requested information from Google through the Federal Court in 2013. The bureau said in those court documents that it "has reason to believe that Google has engaged in an abuse of a dominant position … since at least 2005."
Google continues to work co-operatively with the bureau to answer any questions, spokeswoman Leslie Church said in an e-mailed statement.
Google, the biggest global player in online search, has had meetings with the bureau to discuss the issue.
Industry sources said Microsoft Corp., Yelp, Inc., and Toronto-based digital advertising company Eyereturn Marketing Inc. are some competitors that have met with the Competition Bureau. At least one company has met with bureau officials since the European Commission decision.
Microsoft, which competes with Google in several areas including through its Bing search engine, said in a statement after the EU charges that "every company needs to obey the same legal rules of the road."
The biggest challenge?
Ms. Aitken, of Bennett Jones, said it can be difficult for the Canadian competition regulator to gather evidence from the marketplace in Canada, particularly on complex technology issues. She said the European Commission's decision may help the Competition Bureau's investigation by spurring more conversation about Google's practices.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission conducted an antitrust probe of Google. It shut down the investigation in 2013 after the Mountain View, Calif.-company agreed to make changes to some of its advertising functions. The FTC found that "there was no legal basis for action" and Google's search practices were not "demonstrably anticompetitive."
Luther Lowe, director of public policy for San Francisco-based Yelp, which was part of a lobbying campaign in Europe through the website focusontheuser.eu, said the European Commission's findings were encouraging and that consumers prefer organic algorithms for search.
"These principles, which we illustrated to the European Commission, are applicable universally in any jurisdiction where Google is dominant, be that Europe, the United States or Canada," Mr. Lowe said.
He said the European Commission ruling, as well as the accidental release of information from the FTC this year showing staff members wanted to sue Google under antitrust law, "should send a powerful signal to antitrust enforcement entities across the globe."
Competition Bureau spokesman Greg Scott said he could not comment on the investigation, though generally the bureau works with authorities in other jurisdictions such as the EU and the United States.
"We do work with authorities in the EU, England and Australia, so we're always working with them and we exchange relevant information with respect to our investigations," Mr. Scott said.
Google said in a blog post in April that "people have more choice than ever before." The company faces competition from companies like Amazon.com Inc. and eBay Inc., it said, and "allegations of harm, for consumers and competitors, have proved to be wide off the mark."