FTC reaches settlement with Google, bringing antitrust investigations to a close

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As was widely expected, the Federal Trade Commission announced this morning that it has reached a settlement agreement with Google, bringing the commission's antitrust investigations into the search giant to a close. Two different areas of Google's business were being explored: the way it prioritized search results, and the way that Google had sought injunctions against devices that were thought to have infringed upon standards-essential patents from Motorola.

During this afternoon's press conference, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz stated that Google had agreed to halt its practice of seeking the sales bans, a move that he said "ensures competition continues to work for the benefit of American consumers." Instead, the company will seek to resolve any such disputes through third-party arbitration, a move that the FTC hopes will serve as a "template" for the rest of the industry. As such, Google will be dropping any such legal pursuits from both US federal courts and the International Trade Commission.

As for search results, Google is also agreeing to stop scraping rival services without permission for data that it can include in its own search results. Leibowitz specifically mentioned the allegations that Google had passed off reviews from Yelp as its own, saying that the behavior as alleged would be "particular problematic and harmful to competition because it undermines incentives to innovate." To address the issue, Google will let companies opt out of the service if they don't want to be included. The company is also removing restrictions in the AdWords platform that may have deterred advertisers from using complementary ad services in addition to Google's own.

The 'search bias' investigation was closed in a unanimous vote

Leibowitz said that some competitors had asked that the FTC step in to regulate the very algorithms that Google uses in its search results to compensate for what had been termed "search bias," but the FTC declined to do so. In its investigation, it found that the introduction of tweaks that may have harmed the search ranking of competing online services could be justified as changes that improved Google's search engine itself. As such, the FTC closed its antitrust investigation into the company's alleged search bais in a unanimous vote.

"Google is unquestionably one of America's great companies," Leibowitz said, noting the FTC's belief that today's results will let the search giant move forward to continue focusing on making its products as good as it can for consumers — but "it must do so while competing fairly."

While Google is changing several of its practices, it's hard to see the tweaks as anything more than minor shifts for the company — no doubt more than Google itself would like to give, but far from the sweeping intervention that so many of Mountain View's competitors may have been hoping for.

Update: Unsurprisingly, Yelp wasn't completely satisfied by the settlement. "Today's announcements by the FTC validate a number of the concerns we have raised about Google's dominance in the search market and its anti-competitive behavior," the company writes in a statement to CNET. "The closure of the Commission's investigation into search bias by Google without action, however, represents a missed opportunity to protect innovation in the Internet economy, and the consumers and businesses that rely upon it."

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