(WASHINGTON) — After a high-profile 20-month investigation, the federal government announced Thursday it’s dropping an “exhaustive” antitrust probe into Google, the world’s largest search engine.
The Federal Trade Commission said it found no evidence the tech giant used unfair tactics to thwart competing sites. Google escaped the investigation without paying a fine, but it will voluntarily change some of its practices to be more open to competitors, the FTC said.
“The changes Google has agreed to make will ensure that consumers continue to reap the benefits of competition in the online marketplace and in the market for innovative wireless devices they enjoy,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said. “This was an incredibly thorough and careful investigation by the commission, and the outcome is a strong and enforceable set of agreements.”
The FTC’s investigation focused on two main allegations from rival companies: first, that Google favored its own Internet search results while burying links to competing sites; and second, that the company stifled competition by not allowing access to its mobile device patents.
Competitors have accused Google of scraping content and posting it on search results to make it appear as if it were Google’s own content. For example, Leibowitz said, Google was accused of posting restaurant reviews from Yelp on Internet searches without prompting the user to click Yelp’s site directly — a claim that, if proved true, would have been “clearly problematic.”
As part of the settlement, Google agreed to “refrain from misappropriating online content” this way while also offering online advertisers more flexibility to opt out of showing up in search results.
The company also agreed not to seek injunctions to block rivals from accessing patents that are “essential to key technologies,” like smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices. Google shelled out nearly $12.5 billion last year to acquire Motorola Mobility and its 24,000 lucrative patents and applications, according to the FTC.
“We’ve always accepted that with success comes regulatory scrutiny,” wrote Dave Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, in a blog statement. “The conclusion is clear: Google’s services are good for users and good for competition.”
The commission will continue to monitor Google’s business practices, but critics say the FTC findings don’t have any teeth: The FTC can’t fine Google or jail its executives for future violations. The most the commission says it has authority to do is open another investigation if further concerns arise.
The settlement comes as a win for Google, whose competitors have been pushing for a more stringent antitrust suit.
This is not the first time the tech giant has been under federal scrutiny. In August, the commission said Google violated user privacy agreements by tracking “cookies” for Apple Safari users and sending targeted ads to consumers. Google was forced to pay a $22.5 million fine — the largest ever from a violation of FTC rules.
The company still faces a similar antitrust investigation in the European Union, which launched its probe in 2010.
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