FTC Lets Google Off The Hook In Search Competition Case

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From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

In a case that some people thought echoed the Justice Department’s landmark antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft in the 1990s, the Federal Trade Commission today announced it has closed its case against search giant Google. The upshot: Google essentially got off scot-free on the key issue of its search practices.

The deal concludes that the key issue that would have potentially rewritten how Google does search–whether the company engaged in unfair competitive practices with its industry-leading search engine–was not sufficient to require Google to make any changes, let alone pay any fine. Instead, it requires the company to take only voluntary measures that likely won’t have a significant impact on Google’s business. From Google’s own blog post on the deal:

  • More choice for websites: Websites can already opt out of Google Search, and they can now remove content (for example reviews) from specialized search results pages, such as local, travel and shopping;
  • More ad campaign control: Advertisers can already export their ad campaigns from Google AdWords. They will now be able to mix and copy ad campaign data within third-party services that use our AdWords API.

In a somewhat more significant part of the deal, Google also agreed to make its standards-essential patents available on so-called fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory terms without using injunctions to block their use by rivals.

Again, from Google:

In addition, we’ve agreed with the FTC that we will seek to resolve standard-essential patent disputes through a neutral third party before seeking injunctions. This agreement establishes clear rules of the road for standards essential patents going forward.

Here’s more from the FTC release: …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

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Will Google Dodge An FTC Antitrust Bullet?

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From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

The Federal Trade Commission‘s antitrust investigation of Google is about to come to a head, by most accounts. But it’s a complex case touching on several aspects of antitrust law and whether Google’s search and other activities violate any of them, and the implications for Google, its investors, and Internet users could be huge.

Two attorneys intimately aware of the case provided contrasting views at a webinar this morning conducted by the investment firm International Strategy & Investment and its senior managing director Bill WhymanGary Reback is an antitrust lawyer most famous for representing Netscape in its antitrust case against Microsoft in the 1990s. He now represents several vertical-search companies, such as NexTag, that have complained about Google practices. Geoffrey Manne is a lecturer in law at Lewis & Clark Law School and executive director of the International Center for Law & Economics,which receives financial support from Google and other companies. He has written extensively about his belief that there is no strong antitrust case against Google.

The main takeaway: Despite a Bloomberg story last week that said the FTC was wavering and unlikely to attack Google’s core search business–and another today that repeats that assertion–there’s no agreement by the two sides on what the FTC will end up doing. Reback seemed to acknowledge that Google might find a way to maneuver politically around the FTC to avoid a full-scale assault on the way it conducts its search business. But he also noted that the European Union is closely watching the outcome and may act on its own if the FTC does nothing more than a settlement on the more minor issues.

One key point on timing: Press reports say there’s a Dec. 3 meeting between FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz & EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia. What’s more, Leibowitz is expected to leave for private practice around the end of the year, so that could affect the case one way or another. And if it means anything, Bloomberg says Google CEO Larry Page met with the FTC today. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Surprise: Google Cofounder Larry Page Takes Over As CEO

It was no secret that Google cofounder Larry Page hankered to be CEO at some point. (I should say, again–he was the founding CEO–but it always seemed from what I heard that he wanted another shot at the appropriate time.) Today, he got his wish, as Google just announced that he will take over from Eric Schmidt as CEO, focusing on product development and technology strategy. Schmidt will be executive chairman, handling deals, partnerships, government outreach, and other external matters, as well as serve as internal adviser to Page and cofounder Sergey Brin, whose title will be simply cofounder. He will focus on special projects, while Page’s key jobs will be product development and technology strategy.

Currently, Page is president of product and Brin is president of technology. By design, the trio was a single executive office that made decisions jointly–an arrangement that apparently wasn’t working as well as they wished for a company that now has more than 24,000 employees. Google has been slow to respond, at least with winning products, to key developments such as social networking.

More on the implications after the following comments at the start of Google’s earnings call. Here’s Schmidt on the call (edited after listening to the call again):

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What Happened in 2010–and Didn’t

Somehow I persuaded myself a year ago to offer up predictions for what would happen in 2010–and what wouldn’t happen. Now it’s time to take my medicine and see how I fared.

What I said would happen:

* Merger mania will accelerate in technology, especially acquisitions of smaller firms. OK, so it was a bit of a gimme, but I got that right. Google alone bought more than two dozen.

* Branding will start to become more apparent in Internet advertising, with Google leading the way in display. I guess it became somewhat more prominent a push, but I’d say I was a year too early on this.

* Google’s software efforts will finally establish it as more than a search company, making it apparent what this pony’s second trick is. Android certainly established itself, the Chrome browser made significant gains, and Google Apps got some big new customers. Chrome OS was late, though delivered through an alpha laptop, and remains unproven, and so does Google TV. Overall, it’s an impressive showing, if not enough to identify software as its next trick.

* Yahoo will surprise on the upside, thanks in part to a pickup in brand spending. Wrong! Well, the latter happened, but not enough to buoy a sinking Yahoo. It laid off 4% of its staff and jettisoned once-promising operations. Well, there’s always 2011–and maybe that’s all there will be if CEO Carol Bartz can’t demonstrate that she can finally turn things around.

* Mobile applications will start to take off for the masses. Two words: Angry Birds.

* Twitter’s main business model will become more apparent, but won’t knock everyone’s socks off. That’s just about right.

* Facebook will keep growing, providing perhaps the first test of whether social media is a blockbuster business after all. No doubt about that, even if it’s not yet certain how profitable the company will be.

What I said wouldn’t happen:

* Tablets won’t be the next big thing in client computing. As popular as Apple’s iPad was, tablets didn’t take the world by storm in 2010. But I don’t doubt they’ll be much bigger in 2011.

* There won’t be as many tech IPOs as venture capitalists and startups are hoping. And no, there weren’t, even if 45 did go public, up from 16 in 2009. And none of them were the big names such as Twitter or Facebook that some had hoped for.

* Real-time won’t be a business. When’s the last time you heard that buzzword? Maybe when real-time search engine OneRiot did a layoff?

* Online advertisers won’t escape a privacy backlash. And they sure didn’t. More trouble is coming in 2011, too.

* Google won’t get hit with a major antitrust lawsuit that so many have been predicting for years. True, and it doesn’t look any more likely today.

So actually, I did pretty well, even if you could argue that some of those weren’t exactly stretches. Next up, predictions for 2011, and another opportunity to look like an idiot.

LIVE from TechCrunch Disrupt: Super Angels Vs. Super VCs

The upcoming panel at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco this week suddenly became the flashpoint for the show last week when TechCrunch editor Mike Arrington wrote a blog post on how he crashed a dinner of angel investors and accused them of collusion. A maelstrom of charges, leaked emails, and countercharges ensued. Now some of the principals in this controversy are onstage together with Arrington: Dave McClure of 500 Startups, Ron Conway of SV Angel, Chris Sacca of Lowercase Capital, Chris Dixon of Founder Collective, Roelof Botha of Sequoia Capital, and Mark Suster of GRP. Oh, and Yossi Vardi has crashed the panel. Here we go:

Arrington asks: Anything else you guys want to add on Angelgate? McClure: No. Sacca: Not really. We have to thank Ron for starting this industry. It seems worth getting past. This whole thing is a total waste of time. Conway: nothing more to say. OK, I guess enough of that.

Arrington: How are super angels different from VCs? McClure: Bigger funds can’t invest a small enough amount to do startups.

Arrington: Do you take money off the table when entrepreneurs do (pre-IPO)? McClure: Yes, but only if the founders cash out some. Botha: No. McClure: Of course he doesn’t, because they’re going for the big score when there’s an IPO. Conway: The rank and file engineer has a right to get liquidity at the same time as the investors and the founder. McClure: True.  Suster: Founders should be able to take “feed the family” money off the table. But if and only if you’ve achieved something in the business. McClure: VCs will get squeezed out of deals if they don’t offer founder liquidity.

Arrington: Valuations are going up. What are you doing to counter that? (Laughter throughout the room, as it’s obvious this is a backdoor into Angelgate.) McClure: We’d have to have dinner on that. (More laughs.) Dixon: None of the last 15 investments we’ve done has been larger than $5 million pre.

Arrington: Why should the entrepreneur care? McClure: Because more startups need to be ready for small exits. You have a higher probability of a $50 million to $100 million exits. If you get too high a valuation or too high a round, you have to go for the fences, and that may not be appropriate (paraphrasing).

Arrington: Is it really best to think small, to go for a $25 million company? Conway: We invest, and two years later the entrepreneur decides if they want to sell or keep going for something more. A great entrepreneur does not talk about the liquidity event when he’s talking to us. Sacca: People get rich on $20 million exits. That’s real money. No one in the audience would sneeze at $4 million (apiece for, say, five founders). (Amen.)

Arrington: There’s a cult of personality developing in the angel community that isn’t good. We need $1 billion-$2 billion-$10 billion IPOs and exits. Sacca: They may not be magazine cover stories. But $20 million-exit companies are not “dipshit companies,” as Arrington called them.

And it’s over, with people on the panel more angry with each other than when they started.

Questions About the Google-AdMob Deal–and How the FTC Answered Them

Today the Federal Trade Commission decided not to oppose Google’s proposed purchase of leading mobile ad firm AdMob, clearing the way for the $750 million deal to be closed. Given recent hints that the FTC’s staff might recommend the commission block the deal, the decision was something of a surprise. But as the FTC itself explained, “although the combination of the two leading mobile advertising networks raised serious antitrust issues,” there is in fact ample competition in what is after all still a nascent market.

The investigation raised several questions about not only the mobile ad market but the FTC’s stance on such deals in the Obama era. Here are some of those questions, and the apparent answers:

* Would the deal allow Google to dominate the mobile ad market?

Not at this time, the FTC said, but noted that that was a danger:

Google’s proposed $750 million acquisition of AdMob necessitated close scrutiny because the transaction appeared likely to lead to a substantial lessening of competition in violation of Section 7 of the Clayton Act. Those companies generate the most revenue among mobile advertising networks, and both companies are particularly strong in one segment of the market, namely performance ad networks. The Commission’s six-month investigation yielded evidence that each of the merging parties viewed the other as its primary competitor, and that each firm made business decisions in direct response to this perceived competitive threat.

* Are mobile ads a separate market from other online ads?

I’m not sure why mobile ads, which after all are simply ads that happen to appear on mobile device screens, are really a market separate from other online ads. Marketers, after all, usually view them as potential additions or substitutes to display ads or even search ads, and they can in fact be either of those. And if they view them as separate markets now, it’s likely they won’t stay that way as ad technology firms increasingly offer them as a package to marketers. But it’s clear from the FTC press release that FTC considers the mobile ad market distinct–and furthermore that it doesn’t matter how new it is:

The Commission stressed that mergers in fast-growing new markets like mobile advertising should get the same level of antitrust scrutiny as those in other markets. The statement goes on to note that, “Though we have determined not to take action today, the Commission will continue to monitor the mobile marketplace to ensure a competitive environment and to protect the interests of consumers.”

Mobile ad networks, such as those provided by Google and AdMob, sell advertising space for mobile publishers, who create applications and content for websites configured for mobile devices, primarily Apple’s iPhone and devices that run Google’s Android operating system. By “monetizing” mobile publishers’ content through the sale of advertising space, mobile ad networks play a vital role in fueling the rapid expansion of mobile applications and Internet content.

* Did Apple help Google clear the deal?

Um, clearly. According to the commission’s statement:

The agency’s concerns [about the Google-AdMob deal] ultimately were overshadowed by recent developments in the market, most notably a move by Apple Computer Inc. – the maker of the iPhone – to launch its own, competing mobile ad network. … As a result of Apple’s entry (into the market), AdMob’s success to date on the iPhone platform is unlikely to be an accurate predictor of AdMob’s competitive significance going forward, whether AdMob is owned by Google or not.

* Should Apple be afraid of the FTC?

Very afraid. Or at least it should expect intense scrutiny, if the rather detailed description of Apple’s role in this market is any indication:

These concerns, however, were outweighed by recent evidence that Apple is poised to become a strong competitor in the mobile advertising market, the FTC’s statement says. Apple recently acquired Quattro Wireless and used it to launch its own iAd service. In addition, Apple can leverage its close relationships with application developers and users, its access to a large amount of proprietary user data, and its ownership of iPhone software development tools and control over the iPhone developers’ license agreement.

* Is Google off the regulatory hook now?

Not by a long shot. As the commission said:

Though we have determined not to take action today, the Commission will continue to monitor the mobile marketplace to ensure a competitive environment and to protect the interests of consumers.

Indeed, few experts believe that this decision will have much if any impact on other regulatory concerns about Google’s strength in search ads, its moves into other areas such as display ads, or the privacy implications of its vast data collection.

Eric Schmidt: Google’s Next Big Business Is Display Ads

Annual shareholder meetings can be anticlimactic snoozers, but often enough, Google’s are not. There was the time in 2008 when cofounder Sergey Brin abstained from a motion for Google to end its activities in China, on which the rest of the board voted no–providing a clue to Google’s recent decision to stop censoring search results in that country. And with many issues, from antitrust to Android’s challenge to onetime Google partner Apple, continuing to percolate, it’s worth hearing the latest official line from the company’s executives.

Indeed, judging from questions already posted on Google Moderator for the meeting, the interchanges could be lively. One question: “Google top management seems to be too egotistical and aloof about the stock price Shareholders are mad,the stock is down 21%YTD,You play catch up with apple with nexus one and now verizon tablet What is actually going on?” Hostile tone aside, interesting questions.

There are also several shareholder proposals, on China, behavioral advertising and privacy, and sustainability, all of which Google is officially opposing.

So I’ll liveblog the highlights of  the meeting here starting at 2 p.m. Pacific–and in the unlikely event there are any big surprises, I’ll also tweet them here. I’m told there will be a Webcast here, though it wasn’t listed on that page earlier today.

And we’re nearly underway, as Joe Cocker’s Feelin’ Alright and smells from the adjoining cafeteria waft across the room.

CEO Eric Schmidt comes onstage with what will be the usual board introductions, including John Doerr and cofounder Larry Page. And then the shareholder proposal presentations. First the proposal on asking Google to do a sustainability report. Then the proposal asking Google to strengthen its privacy policy, especially with regard to behavioral advertising. Finally the one calling for more protections for human rights in China–by a guy who I think has asked pointed questions at at least one previous annual meeting (I recognize his T-shirt). And, big surprise, they’re voted down.

Now Schmidt comes back on to talk about Google’s business. “We had a very good year.” And did better coming out of  the crisis than many other companies. Core business grew well, internationally and in the U.S. “So all is well after a year of great tumult.”

So what’s next: Schmidt shows a slide entitled “The rich Internet,” and explains the explosion of data, now about 800 exabytes (which is a billion gigabytes), from 5 exabytes from the dawn of civilization to 2003. “No wonder we all have headaches.” Except Google, of course, because search becomes all the more important with that infoglut.

“Search is no longer just a static Web page.” YouTube and search “audiences” are already larger than most television companies. Taking off in mobile too–number of mobile searches up five times from two years ago. “Search is not just a query”–Google Goggles lets you use a photo as a query. Also 550 quality improvements in the last three months.

Schmidt talks about what he calls “the engaging Internet,” like YouTube. Now all of a sudden, the ads need to be engaging too. In five years or so, “the ad we  grew up with will go away.” Click to call, direct links to store locations or the particular product being searched, etc.

“A huge success for us now is display.” DoubleClick was “money extremely well-spent.” Also announced an ad exchange. Some 60% of display advertisers are new to display. “This is probably our next huge business.”

Enterprise business is growing fast too–a few thousand businesses a day, he says, starting to use Google Apps.

Android is going to be either the No. 1 or the No 2 player in the mobile market–not sure yet. We’re trying to build an entire system of openness–the opposite of the other guys. (Yes, he used a plural, even though we all know he’s talking about Apple.)

The Chrome browser, he says, is also a huge success, because of speed, simplicity, and security. Schmidt says Chrome OS should become a third platform for computers (I guess Linux doesn’t count?).

OK, time for questions. Onstage are Schmidt, Page, search experience chief Marissa Mayer, products head Susan Wojcicki, CFO Patrick Pichette, and Kent Walker.

A guy from Consumers Union (I think) asks a couple of questions that seem rather inside-baseball. One is on use of SSL more broadly–Mayer says stay tuned. Another, more interesting: Is there a $700 million kill fee on the AdMob deal. Schmidt doesn’t say, but says he expects the deal to get approved because mobile is a “highly competitive market.”

Another guy asks a convoluted question about the mobile market, ending with: Why isn’t Google doing mobile devices and products more directly? Page says Google is making “tremendous progress” in those areas but thinks the best strategy is to provide a mobile platform.

Q: Is it over in China or what? Schmidt says Google wants to continue business operations in China, but the situation isn’t settled yet.

Q: Will Google run out of computer space for all that data? Mayer: It’s a big challenge to keep up with data, but that’s what makes it exciting. Wojcicki: Algorithms and better technology will improve Google’s ability to deal with growing data.

Q: What is the next big thing? Page: One of the next big things is translation. Other two-thirds of world population not yet online need that. I think that’s really going to significantly change the world.

Three people now have complained about the lack of responsiveness of investor relations. Pichette tries not to look too uncomfortable.

Q: What’s happening with that competition for Google to build a citywide fiber-optic network? Schmidt: Winnowing the list down but no decision yet. Page: We had an Olympics for trench diggers. (Yes, they did.)

And that’s it.

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