Google’s ongoing discussions with the Federal Trade Commission regarding antitrust allegations against the search giant have been rumored since October to be proceeding to a final decision by the end of 2012.
Now, though, that timeline has been extended into 2013, according to a Dec. 19 report from Bloomberg.
“The agency had been expected to announce the outcome of its probe this week,” but that won’t happen now as the FTC continues the talks in the 20-month-old antitrust investigation, according to two unnamed sources who spoke with Bloomberg.
“Google had been preparing a letter with voluntary concessions to end the agency’s investigation of its practices in the Internet search market without a formal settlement or lawsuit,” the sources told Bloomberg. “The agency was also preparing to file a consent decree on patents curbing Google’s ability to seek court orders barring competitors’ products where the company has agreed to license the technology on reasonable terms.”
Recently, the FTC has been criticized publicly for possibly closing its Google investigation with only a scolding rather than with significant enforcement actions, according to Bloomberg. One critic has been a group of Google competitors, including Microsoft, that call themselves Fairsearch.org. “Fairsearch.org has charged the FTC risks falling behind the European Union in its enforcement of antitrust laws,” reported Bloomberg.
A story on the ongoing Google-FTC talks from The New York Times reports that the FTC investigation will now stretch at least into mid-January, based on interviews with unnamed sources.
“Two people who have been briefed on the investigation said that some commissioners had asked for more time to consider possible penalties after recent reports portrayed Google as having persuaded the FTC to give the company little more than a slap on the wrist,” The Times reported.
Those concerns from competitors got a lot of notice in November, when word got out that the settlement talks between Google and the FTC might not include a key part of the U.S. government’s concerns about Google’s business practices. What was missing was language addressing one of the most serious charges against Google, that it intentionally manipulates search results to harm competitors.
Instead, the talks were focusing on less controversial issues, such as how the company uses patents and how it displays comments collected from other Internet services.
In October, a Reuters story reported on a very different result—that Google could be hit with an antitrust action by the FTC in connection with the ongoing antitrust concerns. An antitrust action would be far more serious but it could be avoided by any pending settlement.
In the October story, according to Reuters, four of the FTC’s commissioners became “convinced after more than a year of investigation that Google illegally used its dominance of the search market to hurt its rivals.”
Google was first notified by the FTC of a “formal review” of its business practices in June 2011 after similar reviews began in Europe. At that time, the European Commission launched an investigation into the company’s search practices after vertical search engines such as Foundem, eJustice.fr and Microsoft’s Ciao complained the company favored its own Web services in search results on Google.com over theirs. They argued that this put them at a significant competitive disadvantage in the market.
The initial FTC review in 2011 began after the agency heard complaints from Microsoft, Expedia, TripAdvisor, Yelp and other Websites that Google promotes its own Web services above those of competitors.
Google denied all such allegations at that time, noting that its search algorithms analyze Website quality and popularity based on links for placement as part of its PageRank system.
In July, Google reached a record $22.5 million settlement with the FTC to resolve charges that Google bypassed Apple Safari browser privacy settings that blocked cookies for their users. The settlement was criticized by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an industry group, as “a dangerously overbroad precedent that will chill Internet innovation and hurt online startups,” the Institute said in a statement at that time.
The FTC charged that for several months in 2011 and 2012, Google placed a certain advertising tracking cookie on the computers of Safari users who visited sites within Google’s DoubleClick advertising network. It charged that Google placed the cookies on consumers’ computers in many cases by circumventing the Safari browser’s default cookie-blocking setting.
Placing the cookies on the computers of Safari browsers violated the terms of an October 2011 settlement between Google and the FTC over deceptive practices related to the launch of Google Buzz, the late unlamented original attempt by Google to compete with Facebook in the social media space. Google later abandoned Buzz and went to work on its successor, Google +, which launched in June 2011.