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FTC commissioners deny ignoring Google lawsuit recommendations

Commissioners defended their decision not to sue, saying it was in keeping with staff recommendations.

FTC commissioners say their decision was based on staff recommnendations. CNET

Three commissioners for the Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday defended their actions during its antitrust investigation of Google, denying reports that it ignored investigators' recommendations to sue the search giant.

Internal agency documents released last week revealed that Google avoided an antitrust lawsuit after the commissioners' investigators issued a sharp rebuke of some of Google's search and advertising practices in 2012. Investigators concluded in their 160-page report that Google's conduct had and would result in "real harm to consumers and to innovation" and recommended suing over behavior such as allegedly scraping content from rivals sites such as Amazon, TripAdvisor and Yelp, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

In early 2013, just months after receiving the report, the FTC commissioners decided against prosecuting Google on antitrust charges, and Google accepted "voluntary" moves to improve some areas of competition in search and advertising.

The commissioners who were with the agency when the investigation was conducted issued a statement Wednesday that "contrary to recent press reports," their decision was in keeping with the recommendations made by the FTC's Bureau of Competition, Bureau of Economics, and Office of General Counsel.

"Some of the FTC's staff attorneys on the search investigation raised concerns about several other Google practices," said the statement, issued by Edith Ramirez, the current chairwoman of the agency, and commissioners Julie Brill and Maureen K. Ohlhausen. "In response, the Commission obtained commitments from Google regarding certain of those practices. Over the last two years, Google has abided by those commitments."

The documents revealed that Google was accused of stealing content from Amazon, TripAdvisor and Yelp to bolster its competing services. In the case of Amazon, for instance, Google allegedly copied the e-retail giant's sales rankings and placed them on its own shopping service to rank items. Google also allegedly copied Amazon's reviews for those products.

After allegedly discovering a similar move, TripAdvisor and Yelp asked Google to stop its activity. The search company quickly denied the request and threatened to remove their services from search, according to the Journal's report.

In a statement in January 2013, the FTC did not directly comment on those alleged claims, but did acknowledge that Google's "Universal Search," which puts the company's own services front and center ahead of competitors, "may have had the effect of harming individual competitors." However, the commissioners argued that the preferential treatment "could be plausibly justified as innovations that improved Google's product and the experience of its users."

"Based on a comprehensive review of the voluminous record and extensive internal analysis, of which the inadvertently disclosed memo is only a fraction, all five Commissioners (three Democrats and two Republicans) agreed that there was no legal basis for action with respect to the main focus of the investigation -- search," the trio said. "As we stated when the investigation was closed, the Commission concluded that Google's search practices were not, 'on balance, demonstrably anticompetitive.'"

The FTC documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal were included in a response to a Freedom of Information Act request and were never meant to go public. The Wall Street Journal said that the FTC requested the documents back, but the news outlet refused.

The agency concluded its statement by expressing regret for the inadvertent disclosure of the confidential documents.

"The Commission takes seriously its obligation to maintain the confidentiality of business and other sensitive information provided to the agency by all parties involved in our investigations," the statement said. "We are taking additional steps to ensure that such a disclosure does not occur in the future."

CNET's Don Reisinger contributed to this report.

Updated 3/26 at 9:40 a.m. PT to correct names of commissioners signing the statement.