FTC Settles with Google in Antitrust Investigation

Google dodged a large bullet Jan. 3 when the Federal Trade Commission announced that the search-engine giant hasn’t violated antitrust statutes. But the victory came with some caveats: Google must allow its competitors access to select patents on “fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory terms” (FRAND), according to the FTC.

Google also agreed to “give online advertisers more flexibility to simultaneously manage ad campaigns on Google’s AdWords platform and on rival ad platforms,” while refraining from “misappropriating online content from so-called ‘vertical’ websites,” such as shopping or travel portals, for use on its own subject-specific Websites.

The federal government’s investigation spanned 19 months and involved testimony from a number of technology executives. The FTC has posted a PDF of the agreement; on its Public Policy Blog, Google offered up its own document detailing its “voluntary product changes” to online advertising and Website content.

In an associated posting on the Public Policy Blog, Google cast the FTC’s decision as one of complete vindication: “The conclusion is clear: Google’s services are good for users and good for competition.”

The FTC’s own statement, however, was quite a bit more shaded: “Google Inc. has agreed to change some of its business practices to resolve Federal Trade Commission concerns that those practices could stifle competition in the markets for popular devices such as smart phones, tablets and gaming consoles.” That being said, the FTC emphasized that its investigation hadn’t uncovered any evidence of anticompetitive action on Google’s part that demanded legal action by the Commission.

The FTC delved into whether Google had altered its search algorithms to damage any up-and-coming rivals, particularly with regard to Universal Search. In the end, it concluded that Universal Search and changes to the algorithms “could be plausibly justified as innovations that improved Google’s product and the experience of its users,” even if the actual adjustments ended up harming competitors.

Watchdog groups aren’t happy with the decision. “Letting Google off with a letter promising not to do it again is like believing Lindsey Lohan will stay out of trouble this time,” the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research wrote in a statement posted on SlashGear. “The FTC had a long list of grievances against Google to choose from when deciding if they unfairly used their dominance to crush their competitors yet they failed to use their authority for the betterment of the marketplace and to the advantage of consumers.”


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