The Federal Trade Commission has settled its investigation of Google for anti-competitive practices, closing its probe into search bias without a complaint while forcing the company to change its practices related to licensing patented mobile technologies, displaying competitors’ content in its search results and penalizing clients for advertising on search platforms other than its own.
FTC Commissioner Jon Leibowitz acknowledged that search bias was widely seen as the biggest part of the case against Google and that some competitors and industry watchers would be disappointed that the commission had not taken action on that front. But, he said, the evidence led the commission to find in a 4-1 vote that Google’s prominent display of its own products in its search results did not amount to a violation of antitrust laws. (You can read the dissent here [PDF]).
Leibowitz did acknowledge that there was some evidence of search manipulation, but on the whole Google appeared to have changed the way it handles search results in order to provide a better experience for users. At issue is also whether consumers are harmed by Google’s practices, and given the emergence of viable search competitors, that legal bar appeared difficult to meet.
Google expressed relief that the long investigation had come to an end.
“We’ve always accepted that with success comes regulatory scrutiny. But we’re pleased that the FTC and the other authorities that have looked at Google’s business practices … have concluded that we should be free to combine direct answers with web results. So we head into 2013 excited about our ability to innovate for the benefit of users everywhere,” David Drummond, Google’s senior vice president and chief legal officer, wrote on the company’s blog.
Google has agreed to stop scraping competitors’ content, such as Yelp reviews, and displaying it as its own and to allow websites to opt out of some specialized Google search verticals without being penalized in its general search results.
The company is also ordered to establish non-penalizing terms for search advertisers who engage in “multi-homing,” or advertising on more than one search platform.
The FTC will continue to monitor Google to ensure that it adheres to the agreements. Liebowitz also noted that its competitors “know how to go to the FTC” and will likely do so if they believe they are being penalized in Google’s search results.
The commission considered more than 9 million pages of evidence and complaints from “many” competitors in reaching its conclusions.