Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz spoke during a news conference Thursday in Washington to announce the end of a 19-month investigation into Google’s business practices.

Jose Luis Magana, Associated Press

No charges in FTC's Google probe

  • Article by: EDWARD WYATT
  • New York Times
  • January 3, 2013 - 9:04 PM


WASHINGTON - The Federal Trade Commission Thursday handed Google a major victory by declaring, after an investigation of nearly two years, that the company had not violated antitrust or anticompetition statutes in the way it arranges its Web search results.

By allowing Google to continue to present search results that highlight its own services, the FTC decision could enable Google to further strengthen its already dominant position on the Internet. Competitors, meanwhile, worry that the FTC's decision will allow Google, which attracts 70 percent of all search queries in the United States, to continue to make inroads at their expense.

Web search has become vital to the success of many businesses. Being ranked higher in search results can mean a great deal more traffic and revenue; being ranked lower can hurt both. Google has long claimed that it uses a neutral algorithm for search queries, something that competitors disputed.

But Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC, said that "While not everything Google did was beneficial, on balance we did not believe that the evidence supported an FTC challenge to this aspect of Google's business under American law."

The five-member commission voted unanimously to close its investigation without bringing charges. The FTC said it found that Google's practices improved its search results for the benefit of users and that "any negative impact on actual or perceived competitors was incidental to that purpose."

Google did agree to make some minor changes to its search practices related to search advertising. The FTC said those commitments were enforceable if the company violated them, but the agreement avoided a formal consent decree or litigation, weapons that the FTC had available.

The commission also found that Google misused its broad patents on cellphone technology, and it ordered Google to make that technology available to rivals. Google also agreed to stop taking its rivals' content for use in its specialized search results, and agreed to stop restrictions preventing small businesses from advertising on competing search platforms.

Last year, some FTC staff members pushed hard in reports to the commission that the company's actions constituted "unfair methods of competition," an area that, like that of antitrust, is policed by the FTC. But the trade commission faced a struggle in proving malicious intent -- that Google changes its search algorithm to purposely harm competitors and favor itself.

Antitrust lawyers say anticompetitive behavior cannot be proved simply by showing that a change in the algorithm affects other websites.

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