Google anti-trust review ending quietly?

The Federal Trade Commission’s anti-trust review of Google appears to be winding down, and the latest reports out of Washington suggest the agency won’t be taking  formal legal action against the Internet search giant – at least not on the basis of earlier claims that Google had unfairly favored its own businesses over rivals in delivering search results.

That’s a big change from earlier this fall, when unnamed sources were telling DC-based reporters that the FTC staff had recommended filing a lawsuit accusing Google of anti-competitive behavior. But the tenor of reporting has changed in the last couple of weeks, indicating the commission apparently doesn’t feel it has evidence to bring a major case.

Nothing’s official so far, but one well-connected Washington lawyer told me to expect an announcement this week.

The latest round of reports started over the weekend when the Politico news site said knowledgeable sources indicated the FTC might let Google make voluntary changes in the way it presents restaurant and travel reviews from other sites, such as Yelp – which has complained in the past that Google was unfairly “scraping” and using Yelp’s content. Politico also said Google might agree to modify its practices to make it easier for advertisers to port their messages to rival search services.

While the details of such agreements are unclear, analyst Carlos Kirjner of Bernstein Research said in a recent note to investors that concessions of that nature are unlikely to hurt Google much, from a financial perspective.

In a separate matter, Politco said Google may resolve an investigation into its use of patents by agreeing to let others pay for the right to use some of its industry-standard technology, as other tech companies have done.

But according to Politico and similar reports that followed from the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg news service, Google may not face a lawsuit or have to sign a formal consent decree related to its core business of delivering search results. Several rivals have complained that Google unfairly presented its own results over those of competing services, while Google has said its results are simply designed to give consumers the most useful answers.

The latest reports have Google’s critics fuming. Blogger and frequent Google critic Scott Cleland is calling for further review by Congress, the Department of Justice or state authorities.

But attorney and former FTC official David Balto, who has been relatively sympathetic to Google’s viewpoint, noted over the weekend that the FTC faced “a clear burden” of demonstrating that any of Google’s practices harmed consumers. As it seems now, he added, “they could not meet that burden.”

Brandon Bailey Brandon Bailey (350 Posts)

Brandon Bailey covers Google, Facebook and Yahoo for the San Jose Mercury News, reporting on the business and culture of the Internet.