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Google's FTC antitrust deal: Top takeaways and challenges

Ian Paul | Jan. 8, 2013
Google executives are breathing a sigh of relief after the U.S. Federal Trade Commission recently decided not to pursue an antitrust case against the search giant. But Google did not get off free; the company made some concessions about how it deals with its search index, advertising programs, and smartphone patents.

Patents take a hit

Google's trove of smartphone patents acquired through its acquisition of Motorola Mobility was also examined by the FTC. Google's patent portfolio includes what are considered standard-essential patents, which are patents that other companies must license if they want to include standard technology common to mobile devices in their handsets. One example of an SEP might be technology used to more accurately pinpoint your location. Since nearly every major company has SEPs, technology companies usually agree to license their patents on "fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory" terms.

The problem was, instead of doing that, Google used its SEPs in court to seek injunctions against rival devices even if the competing manufacturers were willing to license Google's patents. Google has now promised the FTC it will not use its SEPs as litigation weapons, and that agreement could impact cases beyond Google's, according to Florian Mueller, a patent expert and blogger.

Specifically, Mueller expects the Google-FTC patent pact could make it harder for handset makers to get an injunction against competing devices if two companies can't agree on terms for licensing SEPs. That issue is part of the ongoing legal battles between Apple and Samsung. Apple recently complained that Samsung is asking for too much money for its SEPs, while Samsung is seeking an injunction against Apple products that use the Korea-based electronics maker's SEPs. Samsung recently withdrew an injunction request against Apple in a similar case being fought in Europe.

If Samsung doesn't withdraw its U.S. injunction request as well, its case could end up being hurt by the FTC's settlement with Google. Mueller points out that during a press conference Thursday, FTC Chairman Jon Leibovitz called the practice of seeking injunctions against willing licensees anticompetitive. "With yesterday's settlement, it's become much harder to imagine that any smartphones or tablet computers will be blocked in the United States over standard-essential patents anytime soon," Mueller told PCWorld.

While Google may be happy to put this antitrust mess behind it, others aren't so pleased., a consortium of businesses concerned about Google's online power including Expedia, Hotwire, Microsoft, Nokia, and Oracle, said in a statement that "the FTC's inaction on the core question of search bias will only embolden Google to act more aggressively to misuse its monopoly power to harm other innovators."


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