FTC Ends Antitrust Case Against Google

It’s been more than a year and a half since the Federal Trade Commission started investigating Google for allegedly playing favorites with its own services and other anti-competitive practices. Yet the search engine will receive little more than a slap on the wrist.

Search Engine Land explained that there are three parts to the settlement between Google and the FTC. First, Google will no longer be permitted to simply scrape third party content to be included in its own “specialized” search results. Second, Google will be required to make it easier to export AdWords campaigns to Bing and other platforms. And finally, the FTC ordered Google to stop playing games with Motorola’s “standards-essential” patents; the search giant must license them fairly and not use them to block products made by the competition.

It’s rather glaring, however, that the settlement doesn’t address the issues of “search bias” which concerned Google’s competitors the most. According to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, after “an exhaustive investigation into Google’s business practices,” the regulatory body could not find enough factual evidence to support such a complaint. In fact, the FTC was unanimous on this point. What little evidence of search bias Leibowitz and his colleagues did find in Google’s practices was comparable to the kinds of things the search engine’s rivals were doing – and most of what Google did was for the benefit of its users.

Judging from the various reactions to hit the media about this settlement, the only ones happy with it are Google and the FTC. Microsoft, for example, seems more than a little upset. Dubbing the situation “a missed opportunity” in a lengthy blog post, Microsoft vice president and deputy general counsel Dave Heiner stated that “We find it troubling that the agency did not adhere to its own standard procedures that call for the agency to obtain industry input on proposed relief and secure it through an enforceable consent decree.” Heiner also called the ruling “weak,” hinting that it didn’t even adequately address the areas with which it chose to deal.

FairSearch.org, described by Search Engine Land as an “anti-Google lobbying group,” was also highly critical of the settlement. In a statement on its website, the organization described the FTC’s decision as “disappointing and premature” and “by no means the last word in this case…The FTC’s inaction on the core question of search bias will only embolden Google to act more aggressively to misuse its monopoly power to harm other innovators.”

The FTC’s settlement with Google also doesn’t carry much weight abroad. The Guardian reported that the European Commission “has denied that the decision will affect its own investigation into the claims.” Specifically, EC spokesman Michael Jennings said that “We have taken note of the FTC decision, but we don’t see that it has any direct implications for our investigation, for our discussions with Google, which are ongoing.”

So was the FTC’s decision a mistake, or too weak? Information Week  interviewed David Wales, the former head of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, on the matter. Wales points out that the FTC’s other choice was to go ahead with litigation, and hope to win a claim in court against Google. That’s an expensive move with a real risk of failure – thus making a settlement the preferable move. And what if the FTC won? The court fight itself can take years, as we saw the Department of Justice’s antitrust case against Microsoft…by which time the competitive climate would likely have changed, making it very tricky to come up with an appropriate remedy for the anti-competitive behavior.

So does that mean that half a loaf is better than nothing? Perhaps. But Google is an international company, and while this battle has ended, the war may not be over – though one does wonder what the European Commission will do. Meanwhile, SEOs should have an easier time exporting their marketing campaigns from AdWords, at least. And Google…will just go on being Google.