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FTC Closes Google Antitrust Investigation Without Penalties


The Federal Trade Commission has closed its long-running antitrust investigation of Google. The search giant avoided any financial penalties, and the FTC's move is widely seen as a victory for Google. NPR's Steve Henn has been following the story and joins us now to fill us in on the details. And, Steve, this investigation has been going on for years. And now that it's over, I mean, how big a victory is it really for Google?

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Well, it's pretty enormous. For Google, the biggest treat to its business was that the FTC might decide to bring a formal antitrust case against Google or attempt to regulate how Google creates and displays its search results. Competitors like Microsoft and Yelp, a site which offers local restaurant reviews, have been arguing for years that Google tweaks its own search results to favor its own products and services. Last year, the FTC's own staff agreed. And they recommended bringing an antitrust case against Google. But today the FTC's commissioners decided to side with the search giant, so that's a pretty huge win.

CORNISH: What's been the reaction in the industry?

HENN: Well, obviously, Google's pretty pleased, but its competitors are furious. They immediately pointed out that both state attorneys general here in the U.S. and regulators in Europe are still investigating Google's search practices. And the FTC's already taking some heat for this decision. Here's FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz defending the decision at a press conference this afternoon.

JON LEIBOWITZ: Many of Google's critics, including many of its competitors, wanted the commission to go further in this investigation and regulate the intricacies of Google's search engine algorithm. The commission exhaustively investigated allegations that Google unfairly manipulated its search engine results to harm its competitors. And today, the commission has voted to close this investigation unanimously.

HENN: Leibowitz said commissioners and staff reviewed close to 9 million pages of documents. And while there was some evidence that Google manipulated search results to benefit its own products, he and other commissioners were ultimately convinced Google's primary reason for changing the look and feel of its results was to enhance users' experience.

CORNISH: The search was just one part of the FTC's investigation. Did the commission forced Google to make any concessions?

HENN: It did. Google made some small voluntary concessions in search and advertising. It promised to make it easier for small businesses to advertise on competing search engines and pledged to stop copying content, or scraping content from other websites without permission, and then using that content in its own local search results.

Google also agreed to scale back its patent wars with rivals in the mobile phone industry. Last year when Google bought Motorola, it acquired a host of what are called standards essential patents. These are patents on basic technologies in mobile phones that are necessary for any mobile phone to work. Motorola and Google had refused to license some of these technologies to competitors on reasonable terms, and then they were suing those companies if they used these technologies in mobile phones sold in the U.S. As part of today's agreement, Google has promised to end that practice and drop those lawsuits.

CORNISH: NPR's Steve Henn. Steve, thank you for explaining it.

HENN: My pleasure.



This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.