FTC clears Google in search probe

No legal action but tech behemoth agrees to changes in biz practices

In a hotly anticipated ruling Thursday, the Federal Trade Commission absolved Google of illegally skewing its search platform to boost its own services at the expense of rivals but said the tech giant will tweak its patent and search business to level the playing field.

“The evidence the FTC uncovered through this intensive investigation prompted us to require significant changes in Google’s business practices,” said agency outside counsel Beth Wilkinson. “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.”

Google “undoubtedly took aggressive actions to gain advantage over rival search providers,” she said. “However, the FTC’s mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors.”

In the settlement, which critics call little more than a slap on the wrist, Google agreed to allow rivals access “on fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory terms” to key patents it acquired last year when it bought Motorola Mobility. The patents are essential to federal standards allowing wireless connectivity for smart phones, laptops, tablets and gaming consoles. Google will stop suing other companies for using the technology if they’re willing to pay a reasonable license fee.

Google also agreed to give online advertisers flexibility to manage campaigns across various platforms, not just Google’s.

And lastly, it promised not to “misappropriate” online content from other sites and make it seem like its own.

“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.”

Some consumer groups saw it differently.

“Google clearly skews search results to favor its own products and services while portraying the results as unbiased. That undermines competition and hurts consumers,” said John Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project. “The FTC rolled over for Google.”