Google to tweak practices to end search probe

By: Elizabeth Wasserman
December 15, 2012 05:27 PM EST

Federal regulators may end a two-year antitrust probe of Google’s search business by letting the company make voluntary changes, such as limiting use of restaurant and travel reviews from other websites and letting search ad campaigns be easily ported to rival search services, two sources with knowledge of the case told POLITICO.

The FTC is also preparing to enter into a settlement with Google on a related case over how the company uses its acquired stockpile of patents against competitors, as POLITICO reported last week. Under the patent agreement, Google will curtail using key patents it picked up when it purchased Motorola Mobility to block competitors infringing those patents from getting their products to the market, although there are exceptions, sources said.

By allowing Google to voluntarily address some complaints about use of its dominant search and search advertising businesses, the company would avoid a consent decree that could be enforced by the FTC over time. That is sure to upset Google critics and complainants, who will see it as more of a slap on the wrist.

However, the FTC does have authority to pursue cases against companies that violate their own stated policies.

Google declined to comment on details of the case. “We continue to work cooperatively with the Federal Trade Commission and are happy to answer any questions they may have,” Google spokesman Adam Kovacevich would only say Saturday.

The FTC also declined comment.

There has been intense lobbying on the Hill and elsewhere in Washington as the case has neared its close, with some parties maintaining that the negotiations are still fluid and the commission has not yet voted. FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz has said he expected the probe to be wrapped up before the end of the year and Commissioner Julie Brill confirmed that timetable during a POLITICO Pro event Thursday.

Google is said to be preparing an announcement possibly as soon as next week about new practices regarding the use of “snippets” of user reviews for products, lodgings, restaurants and other categories for a series of related search services Google runs in areas ranging from travel to local services to shopping. That has been one of the key complaints from companies such as Yelp and TripAdvisor, which have protested to Google that it is using their content without permission. Google last year stopped using some reviews from companies that objected.

Google will also pledge to change the terms and conditions for use of information created when users or third-party advertisers input data into Google’s Ad Words program when purchasing keyword ad campaigns, allowing more portability of this information for comparison to rival search sites, sources said. Microsoft’s Bing search engine had been concerned that Google’s terms made it for more costly and time consuming for advertisers and agencies to price keyword campaigns on rival sites.

In the patent case, Google is expected to agree to license its patents that are part of industry standards. These patents have been litigated around the world with companies such as Microsoft and Apple. Not making this sort of broad agreement had made Google an outlier in the industry.

However, the Google patent settlement is said to provide Google an out that will allow it to continue blocking products in court actions, in certain circumstances. For example, Google might want exceptions when a potential licensee is not willing to license the patent according to the fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory terms Google has offered. Potential licensees may have to meet certain requirements and go through a process such as arbitration. Failure to do so could result in Google being allowed to pursue injunctions, sources said last week.

Europe is also looking at Google over both patent and search. It is unclear how the FTC’s resolution will affect those investigations. Likewise, some state attorneys general have also looked into Google’s search and have reportedly been frustrated by not being part of the FTC’s negotiations with Google.

Michelle Quinn contributed to this report.

This article first appeared on POLITICO Pro at 1:44 p.m. on December 15, 2012.



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