Yet the FTC publicly announced the exact opposite conclusion.
The Wall Street Journal has acquired and released internal Federal Trade Commission documents that raise some interesting questions about the FTC's official handling of an antitrust investigation into Google's practices.
Specifically, FTC staff members investigating Google's practices a few years ago recommended at the time that the agency sue the company on anti-competitive grounds over its allegedly biased search-engine results, yet the FTC publicly voted to do the exact opposite.
In 2012, the FTC started investigating Google and concluded that the company's search engine results “boosted its own shopping, travel and local business services” while intentionally giving lower search rankings to rival products, according to the FTC staff report acquired by the Journal.
But that's not what the American public initially heard. In January 2013, the FTC publicly announced that, after 19 months of investigation into Google, the “facts just weren't there” to support charges of biased search results. At a press conference, the then-current chairman Jon Leibowitz said that the FTC's bipartisan commission voted 5-0 that Google's search results were not biased to favor its own products over its competitors'.
Not everyone convinced
Not that everyone back then was convinced by the FTC's reassurances. The California-based nonprofit Consumer Watchdog group, for example, responded to the FTC's January 2013 announcement by saying that “Google clearly skews search results to favor its own products and services while portraying the results as unbiased. That undermines competition and hurts consumers…. The FTC rolled over for Google.”
The following December, Consumer Watchdog filed a complaint with the FTC alleging deception in Google Shopping results. “The way that the Internet giant is featuring results from Google Shopping without making it clear that the highlighted results are nothing more than advertisements for merchants who bid for placement is an unfair and deceptive act …. Moreover, consumers are actually being harmed because the featured results from Google Shopping more often than not return higher prices than can be found elsewhere, when consumers would reasonably expect Google’s suggestions to be the best,” CW's Privacy Project Director said at the time.
This week's revelations suggest that the FTC itself agreed with such criticisms all along, despite publicly claiming otherwise.
The FTC has not commented about the report, but Google's general counsel, Kent Walker, said in a statement that, “After an exhaustive 19-month review, covering nine million pages of documents and many hours of testimony, the FTC staff and all five FTC Commissioners agreed that there was no need to take action on how we rank and display search results. Speculation about potential consumer and competitor harm turned out to be entirely wrong.”
Furthermore, said Walker on behalf of Google, “since the investigation closed two years ago, the ways people access information online have increased dramatically, giving consumers more choice than ever before. And our competitors are in fact thriving. For example, Yelp calls itself the ‘de facto local search engine’ and has seen revenue growth of over 350% in the last four years, TripAdvisor claims to be the web’s 'largest travel brand' and has nearly doubled its revenues in the last 4 years.”
Jennifer Abel has worked as a reporter and editor for local newspapers in Connecticut. She contributes to online publications including Playboy, the Guardian, Anorak, Daily Dot, Salon and Mashable.
Email Jennifer Abel Phone: 866-773-0221