In a major victory for Google Inc, US regulators on Thursday ended their investigation into the giant Internet company and concluded that it had not manipulated its Web search results to hurt rivals.
However, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) did win promises from Google that it would end the practice of “scraping” reviews and other data from rivals’ Web sites for its own products, and to allow advertisers to export data to independently evaluate advertising campaigns.
Google also agreed to no longer request sales bans when suing companies which infringe on patents that are essential to ensuring interoperability, also known as standard essential patents, the FTC said on Thursday.
Microsoft Corp and other Google competitors have pressed the FTC to bring a broad antitrust case against Google similar to the sweeping US Department of Justice litigation against Microsoft in the 1990s.
Meanwhile smaller Internet companies such as Nextag have complained about Google tweaking its Web search results to give prominence to its own products, pushing down competitors’ rankings and making them more difficult for customers to find.
At a press conference, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz anticipated criticism of the agency’s decision to not further pursue Google on the so-called subject of search bias.
“Even though people would like us to bring a big search bias case, the facts aren’t there,” he said.
“The changes Google have agreed to make ensure that consumers continue to reap the benefits of competition in the online marketplace and in the market for innovative wireless devices they enjoy,” Leibowitz said.
The commission voted four to one to settle the patent investigation into Google’s injunction requests. It voted five to zero to end the probe of Google’s search practices.
The news had little impact on Google shares, which closed up US$0.42 at US$723.67 on Thursday, as most investors had expected the FTC probe to conclude without inflicting major damage.
Yelp Inc, which operates the social networking and user review Web site yelp.com, had complained about scraped reviews, and said it was disappointed with the result of the FTC probe.
“The closure of the commission’s investigation into search bias by Google without action ... represents a missed opportunity to protect innovation in the Internet economy,” Yelp spokesman Vince Sollitto wrote in an e-mail. “We look for the regulatory bodies continuing their investigation to have greater success.”
Microsoft had no immediate comment, but Dave Heiner, its deputy general counsel, complained in a blog post on Wednesday about “Google’s misconduct,” specifically blocking a fully featured YouTube, which Google owns, from the Windows Phone.
Gary Reback, who represents a group of Google’s critics, including Nextag, said he thought the investigation was inadequate since the FTC failed to respond to his clients’ assertions that they had been hurt by Google and asked few questions in its civil subpoenas.
“They talked about how thorough and exhaustive the investigation was but that’s really rubbish,” said Reback, who is with the law firm Carr & Ferrell LLP and is best known for his work against Microsoft in the 1990s.
“I’ve never seen anything as shallow and incomplete as this was,” he said
Google’s David Drummond, the company’s chief legal officer, said the FTC announcement on Thursday meant that “Google’s services are good for users and good for competition.”
The EU, based in Brussels, is conducting a parallel probe of Google. It announced on Dec. 18 that it was giving the company a month to come up with proposals to resolve its probe.
The European Commission has been examining informal settlement proposals from Google since July last year but has not sought feedback from the complainants, suggesting it is not convinced by what Google has put on the table so far.