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Google reportedly blackmailed websites into giving it content for free

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A new Wall Street Journal report details anti-competitive practices by the company

In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission investigated Google to determine whether the company's monopoly on the search market violated anti-trust laws. The Commission ultimately accepted a settlement with the search giant, but a confidential FTC report obtained by The Wall Street Journal reveals how deeply divided the Commission was over whether to sue.

As part of the settlement, Google agreed to make minor changes to its business practices and argued that the report did not show wrongdoing. But key FTC officials, after collecting nine million documents in the course of the investigation, wanted to take direct legal action against the company. The report reveals why.

Google "adopted a strategy of demoting, or refusing to display, links to certain vertical websites in highly commercial categories."

According to the report, for one example, Google took content from companies like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Amazon. In the latter case, Google lifted product rankings and placed them in their own search results for those products. When the companies complained to Google about the process, Google threatened to remove them entirely from results. The Journal quotes this section of the report: "It is clear that Google’s threat was intended to produce, and did produce, the desired effect, which was to coerce Yelp and TripAdvisor into backing down." The Commission ultimately had Google agree to let websites opt out of the process.

The Journal highlights two other concerns from the FTC. For one, Google reportedly restricted websites that published its search results from collaborating with competing search engines. In other cases, Google refused to allow data obtained from its ad campaigns to be used in campaigns with other services. According to the report, Larry Page personally asked this process to continue, before the FTC eventually convinced Google to shut it down. As for search results themselves, according to the report (as quoted in the Journal), Google "adopted a strategy of demoting, or refusing to display, links to certain vertical websites in highly commercial categories."

Google ultimately made only minor concessions after the FTC's investigation, and as the Commission decided against more forceful action, it was widely seen as a win for the company. But the report describes what happened more acutely: it was "a close call."