WASHINGTON – Google, avoiding a potentially costly legal battle with federal regulators, has ended a 20-month antitrust probe by pledging to change some business practices and settling allegations it misused patents to thwart its competitors in smartphone technology.
The Federal Trade Commission voted 5-0 to close its investigation into whether Google unfairly skewed its search results, with the company saying it would voluntarily remove restrictions on the use of its online search advertising platform, and offer companies the option to keep their content out of Google’s search results.
Under a consent decree regarding patents, Google will have little chance to seek court orders barring competitors’ products when the company has agreed to license its technology on reasonable terms.
The agency’s decision to close its probe of Google’s search practices without any enforcement action is a blow to competitors including Microsoft, Yelp and Expedia.
“Google’s competitors are looking at this as though it’s a slap on the wrist,” said Jeffrey Jacobovitz, an antitrust litigator with Arnall Golden Gregory in Washington.
The FTC decision gives a green light to Google to continue with what it calls “universal search,” where it mixes its own answers to queries with links to other sources of information.
Beth Wilkinson, the Washington litigator hired by the FTC to oversee a potential lawsuit, said that the evidence didn’t show Google’s actions were against the law.
“Undoubtedly, Google took aggressive actions to gain advantage over rival search providers,” Wilkinson said in an FTC statement. “However, the FTC’s mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors.”
The agreement requires Google to give the FTC reports on its compliance with the agreement for five years. The agency has the right to review company documents and interview Google employees if it suspects non-compliance.