Federal Trade Commission to end antitrust investigation of Google

January 2, 2013

The Federal Trade Commission is preparing to end its antitrust investigation of Google ahead of looming changes to the membership of the agency’s ruling board.

The coming turnover has created renewed urgency about resolving the nearly two-year-old probe of Google, said people familiar with the talks, which are likely to conclude in the next few days.

A settlement between the FTC and the search giant was nearly completed in the week before Christmas, but a commission vote and formal announcement was abruptly delayed amid furious criticism from rival companies, state attorneys general and other observers who called the reported terms of the deal weak.

These groups allege that Google uses its commanding position in Web search to hurt rival companies and leverage its travel services, restaurant reviews and other products.

The parameters of the deal, which lack the binding terms and long-term oversight central to other FTC agreements with major technology companies, have not meaningfully changed over the past two weeks, said people familiar with the FTC’s thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss matters not yet public.

On Tuesday, the Senate approved the nomination of Republican Joshua D. Wright, a George Mason University law professor, to replace retiring Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch, a Republican who sometimes advocated tough enforcement actions. The move could come as soon as next week. Wright has criticized antitrust claims against Google and said he would recuse himself from the case.

Also expected to leave soon is FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, a Democrat who has led the agency since 2009 and been a commission member since 2004. He has pushed for expanded oversight of technology companies and won a backroom battle with the Justice Department over which agency would investigate antitrust claims against Google.

Leibowitz has not announced a departure date, although speculation has begun about his successor, who will be appointed by President Obama.

The FTC and Google declined to comment.

FairSearch.org, a coalition of companies pushing for tough antitrust action against Google, said the FTC should wait for later this month, when the company is expected to formally offer concessions to resolve a parallel investigation by the European Union.

“If the FTC fails to take decisive action to end Google’s anti-competitive practices, and locks itself out of any remedies to Google’s conduct that are offered in Europe later this month, the FTC will have acted prematurely and failed in its mission of protecting America’s consumers,” said the group, which includes several online travel companies, shopping sites and Microsoft, operator of the Bing search engine.

The deal ending the Google investigation, which has been one of the highest-profile inquiries in FTC history, would not address allegations that the company abuses its position in the search market, said people familiar with the negotiations. Instead, Google would make concessions to allow marketers to more easily move their online ads to different services, and it would sharply limit Google’s ability to use snippets of reviews and other content produced by such rivals as Yelp.

Google already has scaled back that practice.

The deal may also resolve a separate antitrust case involving Google’s use of patents to attempt to block competing companies from using technology that is supposed to be standard to the industry. That settlement, which would involve a binding consent decree with the FTC, has been criticized as less strict than similar actions against other companies.

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Craig Timberg is a national technology reporter for The Post.
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