Hill Weighs In On Google Settlement

Northern Calif. Dems All Smiles; Judiciary Republican Says Subcommittee Will Monitor Compliance
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Members of the 113th Congress, which held its first session Thursday, weighed in on the Federal Trade Commission's Google decision, but with signals from at least one congressman that would not be the end of the story.

A pair of House members representing high-tech constituents in Northern California, including Google, praised the FTC's conclusion that Google's search algorithms were primarily meant to improve the customer experience and not favor its content for anticompetitive purposes. The FTC also required Google to make essential patents it acquired from Motorola available to competitors on reasonable terms.

"Following its investigation, the FTC's settlement with Google strikes an appropriate balance that protects consumers and preserves innovation," Rep. Eshoo said. "At a time when the market for smartphones, tablets and other wireless devices continues to flourish, the settlement ensures that competitors will have access to the patents essential to powering these key technologies," said Rep Anna Eshoo (D-Calif. [Palo Alto]). "Furthermore, despite a thorough investigation into allegations of search bias, the FTC ultimately decided against taking action that could hinder innovation and consumer choice. I applaud this decision, which recognizes the evolving Internet search market and the exciting innovations that have been the hallmark of the Internet to date," she added.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif. [San Jose]) said she was pleased the FTC had produced an enforceable agreement -- Google agreed to modify certain problematic search business practices like scraping others' content --"without impermissibly expanding the jurisdictional reach of the FTC."

Both legislators had expressed concern that the FTC would use its antitrust authority over unfair methods of competition to find that Google search fell under that provision."

While FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said Google's search did not violate any laws, he did stick by Section 5 authority as a way to address unfair methods of online search competition where there were such violations.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) was less effusive. He is ranking member of the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee, which held a hearing on Google in September 2011 entitled "The Power of Google: Serving Consumers or Threatening Competition?" Lee asked some of the toughest questions at the hearing, saying the FTC needed determine "whether Google's actions violate antitrust law or substantially harm consumers or competition" in an industry that is a "driving force in the American economy." 

The FTC concluded that they did not, at least given the changes Google promised to make, which Lee saw as definite steps in the right direction, though not the end of the road as far as Washington was concerned.

"Google's commitment to allow advertisers to export ad campaign data to other platforms will enhance meaningful competition in the market for Internet advertising," he said. "And Google's promise not to misappropriate content from other websites will help ensure the company does not abuse its dominant position to inhibit competition among vertical search sites."

But he said the subcommittee will be watching. "Along with the FTC, our Subcommittee will seek to make certain that Google abides by these commonsense commitments. Although these voluntary actions represent an important step in the right direction, today's agreement does not address all the concerns about anticompetitive conduct raised at our Subcommittee hearing. We will continue to work with antitrust authorities to help ensure robust competition in the Internet search arena so that consumer welfare is maximized."

As to requiring the company to share its standard essential patents (SEPs), he said he was glad to see it. "A reliable standards-setting process, through which participants promise to license contributed technology on reasonable terms, is essential to interoperability and consumer choice. I look forward to reviewing the precise contours of the consent order prohibiting Google and its subsidiaries from seeking an injunction or exclusion order against willing licensees, and I remain committed to helping ensure that standard-essential patents are not abused in an anticompetitive manner."