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Google, FTC settle on search practices, ending patent probe

| Friday, Jan. 4, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

LOS ANGELES — Google reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission to make voluntary changes to its search practices to put an end to a 19-month antitrust probe, the FTC announced Thursday.

Google also has settled an investigation into its handling of mobile technology patents that it acquired when it bought Motorola Mobility.

The settlement brings to a close one of the FTC's most closely watched investigations. Google still faces antitrust investigations by European regulators and some U.S. state attorneys general. Google is expected to offer concessions to resolve the European Union probe this month.

Google agreed to give marketers more control over their ads. It agreed to limit its use of snippets or reviews and other content from rivals.

It also resolved a separate antitrust case involving Google's use of patents to attempt to keep competitors from using mobile technology.

“The changes Google has agreed to make will ensure that consumers continue to reap the benefits of competition in the online marketplace and in the market for innovative wireless devices they enjoy,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. “This was an incredibly thorough and careful investigation by the commission, and the outcome is a strong and enforceable set of agreements.”

Competitors don't see it that way. That the Internet search giant is emerging largely unscathed from the antitrust probe frustrated competitors, including software giant Microsoft, which had its own yearslong battle with antitrust regulators in the late 1990s and 2000s just as Google began its rise to dominance in online search.

Microsoft, which runs the Bing search engine, has accused Google of abusing that dominance, harming consumers and competitors. It has railed against the FTC for doing nothing to rein in Google's growing monopoly on the web.

Google handles about two-thirds of all U.S. web searches, according to research firm ComScore Inc. It handles more than 80 percent in much of Europe. The software giant has mounted campaigns to condemn Google's business practices. Competitors have said that Google search results promote its own online services. Google has maintained that it has done nothing wrong.

“The evidence the FTC uncovered through this intensive investigation prompted us to require significant changes in Google's business practices. However, regarding the specific allegations that the company biased its search results to hurt competition, the evidence collected to date did not justify legal action by the Commission,” Beth Wilkinson, outside counsel to the FTC, said in a written statement. “Undoubtedly, Google took aggressive actions to gain advantage over rival search providers. However, the FTC's mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors. The evidence did not demonstrate that Google's actions in this area stifled competition in violation of U.S. law.”

“The conclusion is clear: 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 with the FTC and the search giant was nearly done before the Christmas holiday, but concern that the deal was too weak from rivals and state attorneys general delayed a vote from the commission.

David Balto, a former policy director of the FTC's bureau of competition, who has done some paid work for Google, said the decision was a “win-win” for consumers.

“Consumers benefit because Google will not be hobbled by unnecessary regulation or denied the opportunity to try to win consumer loyalty through aggressive competition,” Balto said. “The FTC's mission is protect consumers, and as today's statement makes clear, there is no consumer harm.”

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