Google gets off lightly at FTC search manipulation hearing

By Peter Gothard
04 Jan 2013 View Comments

Google has achieved what can only be described as a victory after an investigation into unfair search result manipulation by the US Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC yesterday released its verdicts on two charges levelled against Google by its competitors. The first finding was in response to allegations that Google had misused patent protection to prevent competition.

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FTC chairman Job Leibowitz simply remarked that the organisation has "stopped that abuse", Google having agreed to stop requesting sales bans on companies that infringe on patents essential for inoperability between their and Google's products.

The second concern, however, resulted in a slightly more controversial result. Dealing with the "allegation that Google unfairly biases its search results to harm competition," Leibowitz announced that the FTC has "closed this investigation, finding that the evidence does not support a claim that Google's prominent display of its own content on its general search page was undertaken without legitimate justification."

While Google's critics will no doubt take issue with this statement, it's Leibowitz' next comment, as head of an organisation set up to be an impartial regulator, that is sure to make their blood boil.

"Google is unquestionably one of America's great companies," said Leibowitz, "innovative in fields from its core search engine to such varied ventures as driverless cars and augmented reality eyewear.

"With today's action by the FTC, Google can refocus on its business and its products, but with a clear understanding that it too must do so while competing fairly."

While part of this statement could be considered a mild ticking off, some of Leibowitz words steer close to a suggestion that Google should be treated more leniently in light of its status as an innovator in other fields.

The choice of products - the unmanned car and AR glasses - are particularly interesting, as neither are products that are close to reaching market.

Microsoft has been quick to go on the offensive, branding - via its corporate blog - the FTC's resolution "weak and frankly unusual."

"We are concerned that the FTC may not have obtained adequate relief even on the few subjects that Google has agreed to address," said Microsoft VP and deputy general counsel, Dave Heiner.

"And what of the search bias issues?" continued Heiner. "Google has long said that it merely aims to offer customers the most relevant answer to their query, and the FTC Commissioners accepted that view. Yet we know that Google routinely and systematically heavily promotes its own services in search results."

Heiner also pointed to an ongoing bugbear for Microsoft: the lack of a YouTube app for the Windows Phone platform. Heiner said Microsoft is "disappointed" that the FTC chose not to seek relief on the YouTube matter, and other similar issues.

"Google built its large lead in search and search advertising in part through a series of contracts requiring other websites and distributors to use Google exclusively," said Heiner.

"The latter issue is something that has plagued competition in the search market for years."

While Google has now agreed to discuss this particular issue with the European Commission – something Microsoft has been campaigning for for two years – the company is concerned that as the FTC "has chosen not even to pursue the matter [it could be] depriving American consumers of benefits that appear on the horizon in Europe".

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