Google’s Lawyers Work Behind the Scenes to Carry the Day

After regulators had pored over nine million documents, listened to complaints from disgruntled competitors and took sworn testimony from Google executives, the government concluded that the law was on Google’s side. At the end of the day, they said, consumers had been largely unharmed.
That is why one of the biggest antitrust investigations of an American company in years ended with a slap on the wrist Thursday, when the Federal Trade Commission closed its investigation of Google’s search practices without bringing a complaint. Google voluntarily made two minor concessions.
“The way they managed to escape it is through a barrage of not only political officials but also academics aligned against doing very much in this particular case,” said Herbert Hovenkamp, a professor of antitrust law at the University of Iowa who has worked as a paid adviser to Google in the past. “The first sign of a bad antitrust case is lack of consumer harm, and there just was not any consumer harm emerging in this very long investigation.”
The F.T.C. had put serious effort into its investigation of Google. Jon Leibowitz, the agency’s chairman, has long advocated for the commission to flex its muscle as an enforcer of antitrust laws, and the commission had hired high-powered consultants, including Beth A. Wilkinson, an experienced litigator, and Richard J. Gilbert, a well-known economist.
Still, Mr. Leibowitz said during a news conference announcing the result of the inquiry, the evidence showed that Google “doesn’t violate American antitrust laws.”
“The conclusion is clear: Google’s services are good for users and good for competition,” David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, wrote in a company blog post.
The main thrust of the investigation was into how Google’s search results had changed since it expanded into new search verticals, like local business listings and comparison shopping. A search for pizza or jeans, for instance, now shows results with photos and maps from Google’s own local business service and its shopping product more prominently than links to other Web sites, which has enraged competing sites.
But while the F.T.C. said that Google’s actions might have hurt individual competitors, over all it found that the search engine helped consumers, as evidenced by Google users’ clicking on the products that Google highlighted and competing search engines’ adopting similar approaches.
Google outlined these kinds of arguments to regulators in many meetings over the last two years, as it has intensified its courtship of Washington, with Google executives at the highest levels, as well as lawyers, lobbyists and engineers appearing in the capital.
One of the arguments they made, according to people briefed on the discussions, was that technology is such a fast-moving industry that regulatory burdens would hinder its evolution. Google makes about 500 changes to its search algorithm each year, so results look different now than they did even six months ago.
The definition of competition in the tech industry is also different and constantly changing, Google argued.
For instance, just recently Amazon and Apple, which used to be in different businesses than Google, have become its competitors. Google’s share of the search market has stayed at about two-thirds even though competing search engines are “just a click away,” as the company repeatedly argued. That would become the company’s mantra to demonstrate that it was not abusing its market power.

Claire Cain Miller reported from San Francisco, and Nick Wingfield from Seattle.


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