Google, US FTC settle antitrust case

The company agrees to license mobile patents to competitors and to stop scraping rivals' content

Google has agreed to change some of its business practices, including allowing competitors access to some standardized technologies, to resolve a U.S. Federal Trade Commission antitrust complaint against the company.

Google has agreed to change some of its business practices, including allowing competitors access to some standard technologies, to resolve a U.S. Federal Trade Commission antitrust complaint against the company.

BACKGROUND: Lawmakers question FTC's investigation

Google has also agreed to give online advertisers more flexibility to manage advertising campaigns on Google's AdWords platform and on rival ad platforms, the FTC said Thursday. After a 19-month FTC investigation, Google also agreed to stop some of its "most troubling" search practices, including scraping Web content from rivals and allegedly passing it off as its own, said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz.

Google has agreed to allow competitors access to standards-essential patents the company acquired along with its purchase of Motorola Mobility in 2012, the FTC said. The FTC raised concerns that Google had reneged on commitments to offer some mobile and Web patents on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory, or FRAND, terms.

Without the patent agreement, a number of smartphone and gaming console devices were "under threat" of patent litigation, Leibowitz said during a press conference. "Today's action makes clear that the commitment to make patents available on reasonable terms matters, and that companies cannot make these commitments when it suits them ... and then behave opportunistically later," he said.

The agreement doesn't include a fine, but the FTC could fine Google up to US $16,000 per violation if the company violates the terms of the patent settlement, Leibowitz said. The agency will monitor Google's compliance with the settlement, he said.

The settlement also doesn't include an agreement on search bias because the FTC didn't find enough evidence to force an agreement, he said.

The FTC did see some evidence of search manipulation, but Google's actions "didn't violate the American antitrust laws," Leibowitz said.

The agency looked at allegations that Google threatened to remove websites from search results if they complained about the search giant scraping their content, Leibowitz. "If the allegations are accurate, they describe conduct that is clearly problematic and potentially harmful to competition because it undermines incentives to innovate," he said. "Why would you create a new site for restaurant reviews if someone else can take them and appropriate them as if they were their own?"

The settlement shows Google's services are "good for users and good for competition," David Drummond, Google's senior vice president and chief legal officer, wrote in a blog post..

The settlement will give websites the ability to opt out of Google's search results and allow advertisers to mix and copy their Google ad campaigns with third-party services that use Google AdWords APIs, Drummond wrote.

"We've always accepted that with success comes regulatory scrutiny," he added. "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."

The FTC began investigating Google for antitrust violations in its search and advertising businesses in mid-2011. The agency reportedly has looked into Google's relationship with Android handset makers and whether Google favors its own services in search results.

In December 2011, U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat, and Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, asked the FTC to look into whether Google listed its products and services first in search results. Other lawmakers have urged the FTC to tread carefully in a dynamic tech industry.

Google competitors, including Microsoft, Oracle and other members of the FairSearch.org coalition, have accused Google of search "discrimination" by manipulating search results. Google has also used its dominance to force competitors out of the search marketplace, the group has said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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