Google (GOOG) antitrust case: Two-year FTC probe ended Thursday without a settlement

Search giant to make voluntary concessions

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- At the conclusion of an ambitious, two-year antitrust investigation by the United States government, search giant Google is getting away relatively scot-free.

The Federal Trade Commission's probe of Google's search business ended Thursday without a settlement or even so much as a wrist-slap. The regulator did not bring a lawsuit against the company related to search.

Instead, Google said it has made voluntary concessions that include making it easier for advertisers to switch their ad campaigns to competitors, ending exclusive search deals with websites. Those actions are legally enforceable, the FTC said.

Google also settled a separate, unrelated lawsuit brought against it by the FTC over its patent licensing. Regulators found that Google was wrongfully preventing competitors from licensing certain patents held by subsidiary Motorola Mobility.

When Google bought Motorola last May, the company agreed to sell rights to patents essential to wireless technologies, but the FTC said Google instead refused to provide those licenses and sought injunctions against smartphones that Google felt infringed on its patents. As part of the settlement, Google agreed to license these standard, essential patents in the future.

Still, the lack of a lawsuit over its search engine is a major victory for Google. The company controls about two-thirds of the U.S. search market, according to online data tracker comScore. As such, Google has been intensely scrutinized by some antitrust watchdogs for its tactics.

Over the past several years, Google has begun weaving its own products into search results, including its Google+ social network, local business listings, airline schedules and weather reports. That often has the effect of placing competitors' listings lower on search results pages. Google has been criticized by rivals and even Congress for favoring its own search results.

Microsoft, which runs search site Bing, and online reviews site Yelp have been among the most outspoken of Google's competitors.

Google has generally responded to antitrust allegations by saying that "competition is just a click away." It made the legal argument that its search algorithm represents the company's "scientific opinion" about the best answers to search queries -- an opinion that it says is protected by the First Amendment.

Antitrust lawyers not involved in the case have generally agreed that bringing a monopoly case against Google would have challenging. The FTC likely would have needed to prove not only that Google abused its power, but also that its customers were harmed in the process.

"The FTC had trouble articulating how Google hurt consumers," said Danny Sokol, antitrust law professor at the University of Minnesota.

Deciding not to bring a case against Google is a sign that the FTC didn't think its case was strong enough to win. It would have been the highest profile monopoly case since the government sued Microsoft over a decade ago. A loss would have embarrassed the regulator and wasted taxpayer resources.

But Google isn't out of hot water yet. The search giant faces a similar investigation in Europe, where antitrust laws are far more stringent and where Google has a commanding 90% share of the search market.

 
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