For months there was speculation that the government would come down on Google like a ton of bricks over its alleged anti-competitive practices, but instead the search engine giant scored an impressive victory, with the FTC finding it not guilty of bias in its search results.
However, Google did agree to some voluntary concessions, including a vow not to scrape content from other sites in its search results, and a promise to provide advertisers with more information about their ad campaigns. In addition to this, Google earlier agreed to a concession about how it uses the standard essential patents it secured when it acquired Motorola last year, which will see it charge “fair and reasonable” rates for companies to use them.
Nevertheless, the FTC’s ruling has upset a number of competitors, which had called for much stronger sanctions to be imposed on Google.
Fairsearch, a group that represents Google critics including Microsoft and Tripadvisor, said in a statement that the FTC’s decision to close its investigation was very disappointing:
“The FTC’s decision to close its investigation with only voluntary commitments from Google is disappointing and premature, coming just weeks before the company is expected to make a formal and detailed proposal to resolve the four abuses of dominance identified by the European Commission, first among them biased display of its own properties in search results.”
The main issue of contention, as far as Fairsearch is concerned, is that Google abuses its position as the most popular search engine by favoring its own products and services in its search results. This much would seem evident whenever a user carries out a search in some industry that Google is involved in – for example, a search of “best sushi New York” results in Google affiliate Zagat ranking in first place, followed by seven listings from its own local directory services. Searches in other niches, such as travel, some consumer products, and even Santa Claus also invariably display Google results ahead of others.
Incredible as it seems though, the FTC said that it found no evidence that Google favored its own products ahead of others.
“Some may believe the commission should have done more, but for our part we do follow the facts where they lead,” said FTC chairman Job Leibowitz in a statement.
“We do it with appropriate rigour. This brings to an end the investigation. It is good for consumers, it is good for competition and it is the right thing to do.”
Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond, took the opportunity to emphasize those sentiments in his own reaction:
“The US Federal Trade Commission today announced it has closed its investigation into Google after an exhaustive 19-month review that covered millions of pages of documents and involved many hours of testimony.”
“The conclusion is clear: Google’s services are good for users and good for competition.”
Undoubtedly the controversy over Google’s anti-competitive behavior will continue to drag on, with more cynical observers suggesting that the company may have done a deal ‘under the table’, so to speak.
It’ll also be interesting to see what happens in the EU, where competition commissioners are expected to take a much tougher line against Google. Their investigation is still ongoing, but last month it detailed four key areas that it wants the search company to address:
1. The manner in which Google displays “its own vertical search services differently” from other, competing products
2. How Google “copies content” from other websites – such as restaurant reviews – to include within its own services
3. The “exclusivity” Google has to sell advertising around search terms people use
4. Restrictions on advertisers from moving their online ad campaigns to rival search engines
These are some tough questions for Google to answer, so it’ll be interesting to see what their response is and whether or not it will be enough to appease the Europeans. Presuming Google’s answers don’t satisfy the EC, it’s likely that it would be found guilty of breaching EU anti-trust rules, which could lead to a fine of up to $4 billion – and possibly even renewed legal action in the US.