Relief for Google as US ends monopoly probe

WASHINGTON: US regulators Thursday closed a lengthy antitrust probe into Google, saying there was not enough evidence to show the Internet giant manipulated its search results to harm its competitors.

The Federal Trade Commission said it lacked a legal basis to bring a monopoly abuse case against Google for "search bias," as alleged by some rivals, but won commitments from the tech titan to end its "most troubling" practices on search and advertising.

FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz said the action concludes a year-and-a-half probe of the Internet giant, accused by rivals of abusing its market dominance.

Many of Google's critics "wanted the Commission to go further in this investigation and regulate the intricacies of Google's search engine algorithm," Leibowitz said.

The FTC "exhaustively investigated allegations that Google unfairly manipulated its search engine results to harm its competitors," but found the evidence did not support an enforcement action, he said.

"The facts weren't there under the law we apply," he Leibowitz added.

Even though some rivals dislike Google search, "it doesn't violate the American antitrust laws," he said.

Still, Google made "enforceable commitments" to change some practices criticised by rivals in a voluntary settlement.

Leibowitz said Google had "committed to stop the most troubling of its business practices related to Internet search and search advertising."

Google agreed to stop misappropriating or "scraping" the content of rivals that makes it appear as if it were from Google and to drop contractual restrictions that limited the ability of small businesses to advertise on competing search engines, he said.

In a separate patent case, Google agreed to an FTC order "to stop seeking to exclude competitors using essential patents," mainly from Motorola, which Google purchased, the FTC chief said.

The action in Washington leaves unclear the outcome of a similar probe by the European Commission into Google's alleged monopoly abuse.

The European Union said last month it was still seeking commitments from the US firm that it abused its dominant market position in Internet search.

Google's chief legal officer David Drummond said of the FTC decision: "The conclusion is clear: Google's services are good for users and good for competition."

Drummond added, "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."

Leibowitz said Google's commitments are "binding" and "enforceable" because the company made a written pledge to the federal regulatory agency. Any violation of those promises could result in fines, he said.

"This is a major victory for Google," said Greg Sterling, an analyst with Sterling Market Intelligence who blogs at Search Engine Land.

"The search bias argument was always one of the hardest and most unconvincing parts of any potential case against Google -- though it's the issue competitors probably care most about."

Sterling said EU regulators "arguably have a stronger negotiating position than the FTC. The Europeans also seem more intent on exacting bigger concessions from Google than the FTC. Yet a full-blown antitrust action against the company in Europe is unlikely."

Google has close to 70 per cent of the search market in the United States, and more in some other markets.

According to the research firm eMarketer, Google had around 75 per cent of US Internet search advertising revenues and 93 per cent in the mobile search ad market.

- AFP/jc

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