Ending an 18-month investigation, the Federal Trade Commission said Thursday that it did not find enough evidence to warrant legal action against Google over its search results, but it said the Internet giant had voluntarily agreed to change some other practices.
Google will no longer "scrape" reviews from competitors to use as its own and also will make it easier for businesses to advertise with competing search engines, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said. In a separate matter, Leibowitz said Google had agreed to license patents for standard mobile technology that are essential to devices including Xboxes and iPads.
"Undoubtedly, Google took aggressive actions to gain advantage over rival search providers," Beth Wilkinson, FTC's outside counsel said in a statement. "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 U.S. law."
The announcement follows nearly 18 months of investigation by federal authorities and vociferous complaints from Google's competitors, who had urged the FTC to file an anti-trust lawsuit against Google over allegations that the Internet search giant was unfairly favoring its own online services over those of its rivals when displaying search results.
Google welcomed the announcement in a company blog post Thursday.
"The conclusion is clear: Google's services are good for users and good for competition," wrote David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer. Referring to the agreements announced by the FTC, Drummond went on to say that "we've always been open to improvements that would create a better experience" for users of its search engine.
The FTC's voluntary agreement with Google is significant, but falls far short of the more sweeping enforcement action that some had anticipated when the FTC announced its investigation. The commission at one point had hired outside legal experts to prepare for what some expected to be a legal battle that would match the scope of the government's far-reaching anti-trust battles with Microsoft a decade ago.
Microsoft, in fact, was one of several competitors that had urged the FTC to pursue its investigation. Google's rivals have also complained to European authorities, who are still mulling a legal settlement with Google. In recent weeks, some Google critics also have urged the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene, since the Justice Department shares anti-trust enforcement authority with the FTC. Legal experts, however, say it's unclear whether the Justice Department would pursue a case if the FTC has concluded it does not have evidence to proceed.
Some Google critics said Thursday they still hope for other agencies to take further action. In a statement, the online review service Yelp said the FTC's decision, "represents a missed opportunity to protect innovation in the Internet economy, and the consumers and businesses that rely upon it." Yelp, which has complained that Google displays Google's own services more prominently than competing sites, added: "We look for the regulatory bodies continuing their investigation to have greater success."
Leibowitz had previously said he hoped to announce a resolution of the Google case by the end of 2012. But news reports citing unnamed sources said the commission decided to postpone an announcement last month so it could have more time to confer with European regulators as well as state officials in Texas and other states that have been examining similar issues.
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