FTC lets Google off antitrust hook

Posted by Emma Woollacott

The Federal Trade Commission has completed its investigation of Google over unfair business practices - and the company's got off very lightly indeed.

The eighteen-month probe has concluded that the way Google ranks search results hasn't violated antitrust rules, and has merely ordered the company to make sure that its Motorola subsidiary licenses patents on a fair and reasonable basis.

"We’ve always accepted that with success comes regulatory scrutiny," says Google senior vice president and chief legal officer David Drummond.

"But we’re pleased that the FTC and the other authorities that have looked at Google's business practices — including the US Department of Justice (in its ITA Software review), the US courts (in the SearchKing and Kinderstart cases), and the Brazilian courts (in a case last year) — have concluded that we should be free to combine direct answers with web results."

As part of the deal, Google has also agreed to give online advertisers more flexibility to simultaneously manage ad campaigns on Google’s AdWords platform and on rival ad platforms. It's also promised not to misappropriate online content from, for example, shopping or travel websites for use in its own vertical offerings.

"The evidence the FTC uncovered through this intensive investigation prompted us to require significant changes in Google’s business practices. However, regarding the specific allegations that the company biased its search results to hurt competition, the evidence collected to date did not justify legal action by the Commission," says Beth Wilkinson, outside counsel to the FTC.

"Undoubtedly, Google took aggressive actions to gain advantage over rival search providers. However, the FTC’s mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors. The evidence did not demonstrate that Google’s actions in this area stifled competition in violation of US law."

This view will not go down well with Google's competitors. The company currently has about 70 percent of the US search market - and more in Europe, where it is also currently the subject of a similar investigation.
 
Fairsearch.org - a group of rival search companies which includes Microsoft, Expedia and Travelocity - describes the FTC settlement as disappointing and premature.

"The FTC’s inaction on the core question of search bias will only embolden Google to act more aggressively to misuse its monopoly power to harm other innovators," says the group in a statement.

"State attorneys general who reportedly disagreed with today’s announcement by the FTC have an important role to play in ensuring both that Google is not allowed to continue practices that hurt every American business through artificially high advertising costs, and to demand that whatever changes Google is forced to make in Europe also apply for US consumers who risk losing innovation because of Google’s aggressive abuse of its dominance."