FTC says it did not go easy on Google in search probe

The agency was responding to charges that it had overruled staff objections

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission said its decision not to prosecute Google over its search practices was in line with the recommendations of its staff.

The statement issued Wednesday by FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez and Commissioners Julie Brill and Maureen Ohlhausen was in response to the leak of an internal document, which suggested that the agency's staff had concluded that Google's business tactics had caused "real harm to consumers and to innovation," and had recommended a lawsuit against the company.

The FTC's decision on the search allegations was in accord with the recommendations of the FTC's Bureau of Competition, Bureau of Economics, and Office of General Counsel, the three commissioners wrote, claiming that the document, which was inadvertently provided to The Wall Street Journal as part of a public records request, was only "a fraction" of the voluminous record and extensive internal analysis that was reviewed at the time.

"All five Commissioners (three Democrats and two Republicans) agreed that there was no legal basis for action with respect to the main focus of the investigation -- search," the three commissioners wrote. The other two commissioners, Joshua D. Wright and Terrell McSweeny, were not at the FTC at the time of the decision on the Google search investigation.

The FTC announced in January 2013 that Google had agreed to change some of its business practices to resolve the agency's concerns.

Although some of the FTC's staff attorneys on the search investigation had raised concerns about several other Google practices, the agency obtained commitments from Google regarding some of those practices, and the company has abided by them in the last two years, the commissioners wrote.

The leaked staff report painted an image of Google as a bully that boosted links to its own services, and copied content from rival websites and threatened them if they objected.

The commissioners said they regretted the inadvertent disclosure of the document and were taking measures to prevent such leaks in the future.

The agency also tried to distance itself from a WSJ report that Google may have benefited from access to the White House, and pointed out that the FTC had settled a complaint over Google's conduct with regard to certain standard essential patents on the same day it closed the search investigation.

Google could not be immediately reached for comment.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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