By Kirsten Salyer
Has the King of Search found a way out of a sticky antitrust settlement?
Bloomberg News reports that Google Inc. is preparing to make voluntary concessions to end an almost two-year investigation of its business practices by the Federal Trade Commission. The federal scrutiny came in response to arguments from Google's competitors that the search company has abused its dominance in Internet search and given its own products and services an advantage.
Google is said to be preparing a letter in which it will promise not to copy content from rival websites without permission, and will agree to allow advertisers to compare Google's ad-campaign data with other search-engine performance data. This would close the investigation without a lawsuit or settlement, Bloomberg News reports.
In another investigation of Google, this one concerning patents, the FTC is likely to announce a consent decree this week in which Google would agree to license patents on reasonable terms.
While Google seems to be slipping through settlement talks relatively unscathed in the U.S., in the European Union it may face more resistance from antitrust regulators investigating its dominance in the search market. In the U.S., Google handles about two-thirds of all Web searches. In several major European markets, Google accounts for more than 90 percent of searches.
Google's easy-out in the FTC investigation would be a blow to competitor Microsoft Corp., whose Bing search engine accounts for about 16 percent of searches. Microsoft faced similar antitrust charges in 1998 when the U.S. Justice Department prevented it from using its Windows operating system to promote its Internet Explorer browser over competitors. Microsoft's loss in this antitrust case is often attributed to helping advance the rise of Google.
So what's different in the case against Google today? It all comes down to the consumers. Google argues that its search ranking benefits users by providing top relevant content and that it doesn't hinder competitors because they are just "one click away." In the Microsoft case, the judge charged that Microsoft was building a monopoly that harmed consumers by distorting competition and that raised the barrier of entry for Web developers, essentially limiting innovation.
Today, we accept that the Web is an open place that cultivates creativity and innovation. Barriers to that openness harm our experience as users, so it's good that Google got a scolding and a reminder to play fair. It shouldn't copy information without permission, it should be transparent to advertisers, and it should have fair terms for licensing patents essential for the industry.
But what else can we expect? If consumers and advertisers have the necessary information to make choices among competitors, accusations of unfair monopoly on the Web fall flat. Competitors might be better to leave off the litigation and try to knock Google off its throne the old-fashion way: with creative, user-conscious alternatives.
(Kirsten Salyer is social media editor for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)
Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.-0- Dec/18/2012 18:39 GMT