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Google emerges from probe unscathed

Google has settled a US government probe into its business practices without making any major concessions on how the company runs its internet search engine, the world's most influential gateway to digital information and commerce.

The agreement with the Federal Trade Commission covers only some of the issues raised in a wide-ranging antitrust investigation that could have culminated in a regulatory crackdown that re-shapes internet search, advertising and mobile computing.

But that did not happen, to the relief of Google and technology trade groups worried about over-zealous regulation discouraging future innovation. The resolution disappointed consumer rights groups and Google rivals such as Microsoft, which had lodged complaints with regulators in hopes of legal action that would split up or at least hobble the internet's most powerful company.

Google is still trying to settle a similar antitrust probe in Europe. A resolution to that case is expected to come within the next few weeks.

After a 19-month investigation, Google placated the FTC by signing a consent decree requiring the company to charge "fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory" prices to license hundreds of patents deemed essential to the operations of mobile phones, tablet computers, laptops and video game consoles.

The requirement is meant to ensure that Google does not use patents acquired in last year's 12.4 billion dollar (7.7 billion) purchase of Motorola Mobility to thwart competition from mobile devices running on software other than Google's Android system. The products vying against Android include Apple's iPhone and iPad, Research in Motion's BlackBerry and Microsoft's Windows software.

Google also promised to exclude, upon request, snippets copied from other websites in capsules of key information shown in response to search requests. The company had insisted the practice is legal under the fair-use provisions of US copyright law.

Nonetheless, even before the settlement, Google already had scaled back on the amount of cribbing, or "scraping," of online content after business review site Yelp lodged one of the complaints that triggered the FTC investigation in 2011. It also pledged to adjust the online advertising system that generates most of its revenue so marketing campaigns can be more easily managed on rival networks.

But Google prevailed in the pivotal part of the investigation, which delved into complaints that the internet search leader has been highlighting its own services on its influential results page while burying links to competing sites. For instance, requests for directions may turn up Google Maps first, queries for video might point to the company's own site, YouTube, and searches for merchandise might route users to Google Shopping.

Although the FTC said it uncovered some obvious instances of bias in Google's results during the investigation, the agency's five commissioners unanimously concluded there was not enough evidence to take legal action.

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