On Thursday the Federal Trade Commission ended a 19-month probe into Google’s business practices, a closely-watched effort to determine whether the search-engine giant violated antitrust laws. The verdict? Not guilty.
Google struck a deal with the FTC to put the probe to rest, volunteering to change the way it handles search results as well as agreeing to license some mobile phone patents to rival companies.
The antitrust investigation centered on the way Google treats its own products in its search results. Rival companies -- especially Microsoft, which runs the number-two search engine, Bing -- complained that Google was highlighting its own services, like business listings and its Google+ social network, while unfairly burying those of other companies on its search result pages.
The FTC disagreed. “Although some evidence suggested that Google was trying to eliminate competition, Google's primary reason for changing the look and feel of its search results to highlight its own products was to improve the user experience," FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz told CBS News.
Google reached a settlement with the FTC by agreeing to limit the ways it uses snippets of other companies’ content, as well as giving advertisers more control over how their ads are displayed. For years the company has argued that its use of these snippets -- things like reviews and summaries -- constitutes fair use. But several companies, including review site Yelp, complained about the way their material appeared on Google search pages. Now Google says that it will honor requests to exclude snippets from other sites in its searches.
In spite of this friction between Google and its rivals, the FTC stated that its investigation hadn’t found any indication that the company violated antitrust laws. The Commission noted in its statement that while “Google took aggressive actions to gain advantage over rival search providers ... the evidence did not demonstrate that Google’s actions in this area stifled competition in violation of U.S. law.”
The Commission also investigated how Google has been handling some of its mobile phone patents, especially those it acquired when it purchased Motorola Mobility last May. Rival companies -- including Microsoft, Apple, and Research in Motion, which makes BlackBerry -- complained that some of the patents Google acquired were essential to their own products. Google had been threatening injunctions against these companies, blocking them from using these “standards-essential” patents. But as part of its settlement, the company agreed to allow rivals to license these patents, even in cases where the patent would ultimately be used in a device that competes with one of Google’s own.
Google emerged from the investigation with its reputation more or less intact. That’s a good thing, if you ask the FTC, but probably frustrating to Google’s rivals -- especially Microsoft, which has been prodding the Commission to check Google’s perpetually-expanding online influence (and, to be sure, no stranger itself to anti-trust accusations).