Wilson Sonsini, Paul Weiss advise as Google makes deal with US watchdog

Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati client Google has agreed to change some of its search practices in the US after an investigation into anti-competitive behaviour by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) concluded that harsher charges would not be necessary.

The decision marks a clear victory for Google, which was accused of unfairly promoting its products at the expense of its competitors, and its lawyers at Wilson Sonsini and Axinn Veltrop & Harkrider, both of which have been advising the search giant in the investigation for nearly two years.

The US watchdog, which concluded last week that there was not enough proof to accuse Google of manipulating search results, hired former justice department prosecutor Beth Wilkinson, a Paul Weiss litigiation partner who is best known for arguing for the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 1997, to oversee the case from April 2012. The appointment of the former Latham & Watkins partner sparked rumours earlier last year that the US watchdog was preparing for a potential lawsuit.

With no legal action being taken the decision has already angered web rivals such as Microsoft, with deputy general counsel Dave Heiner lashing out at the conclusions in a recent blog post.

However, Wilkinson said the findings did not justify legal action. “Undoubtedly, Google took aggressive actions to gain advantage over rival search providers. However, the FTC’s mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors,” she said in a statement last week. “The evidence did not demonstrate that Google’s actions in this area stifled competition in violation of US law.”

Boutique antitrust firm Axinn Veltrop handled the standard essential patent side of the investigation for Google, led by co-chair John Harkrider, a former Skadden lawyer, and anti-trust partner Russell Steinthal. The firm advised alongside co-chair of Wilson Sonsini’s antitrust practice Susan Creighton and antitrust partner Scott Sher. Both firms have worked together in the past, representing Google in its $700m acquisition of ITA Software in 2011.

Following the decision Google has agreed to change some of its business practices, promising to give websites the option to keep their content out of Google’s specialised search offerings while still having them appear in Google’s general search results.

Now a conclusion has been reached the focus is on Europe, where the European Commission has been investigating competition complaints against Google since 2010.

The US settlement comes weeks after a Milan appeals court overturned the conviction of three Google managers – understood to be senior vice-president David Drummond, chief legal officer Peter Fleischer and chief privacy counsel George Reyes – for violating Italy’s privacy laws by allowing the posting of a video on a Google Video website that shows the bullying of a handicapped student.

“Our hearts have always gone out to the boy who was bullied in that terrible video. As we have said before, the responsibility lies with the bullies, who have already been punished,” Google’s EMEA litigation director Harjinder Obhi told The Lawyer before the decision was made in December. “We look forward to clearing our colleagues’ names during the appeals process.”