SAN FRANCISCO — Google has settled a US government inquiry into its business practices without making any major concessions on how the company runs its Internet search engine, the world’s most influential gateway to digital information and commerce.
Thursday’s agreement with the Federal Trade Commission covers only some of the issues raised in a wide-ranging antitrust investigation that could have culminated in a regulatory crackdown that reshapes Internet search, advertising, and mobile computing.
But that crackdown didn’t happen, to the relief of Google and technology trade groups worried about overzealous regulation discouraging future innovation. The resolution disappointed consumer rights groups and Google rivals such as Microsoft Corp., which had lodged complaints with regulators hoping for a legal action that would split up, or at least hobble, the Internet’s most powerful company.
Google is still trying to settle a similar antitrust probe in Europe. A resolution to that case is expected to come within the next few weeks.
After a 19-month investigation, Google Inc. placated the FTC by agreeing to a consent decree that will require the company to charge ‘‘fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory’’ prices to license hundreds of patents deemed essential to the operations of mobile phones, tablet computers, laptops, and video game consoles.
The requirement is meant to ensure that Google doesn’t use patents acquired in last year’s $12.4 billion purchase of Motorola Mobility to thwart competition from mobile devices running on software other than Google’s Android system. The products vying against Android include Apple Inc.’s iPhone and iPad, Research in Motion Ltd.’s BlackBerry, and Microsoft’s Windows software.
In another concession, Google pledged to adjust the online advertising system that generates most of its revenue so marketing campaigns can be more easily managed on rival networks.
But Google prevailed in the pivotal part of the investigation, which delved into complaints that the Internet search leader has been highlighting its own services on its influential results page while burying links to competing sites. For instance, requests for directions may turn up Google Maps first, queries for video might point to the company’s own site, YouTube, and searches for merchandise might route users to Google Shopping.
Although the FTC said it uncovered some obvious instances of bias in Google’s results during the investigation, the agency’s five commissioners unanimously concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to take legal action.
Two consumer rights groups lashed out at the FTC for letting Google off too easily.
‘‘The FTC had a long list of grievances against Google to choose from when deciding if they unfairly used their dominance to crush their competitors, yet they failed to use their authority for the betterment of the marketplace,’’ said Steve Pociask, president of the American Consumer Institute.
John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog asserted: ‘‘The FTC rolled over for Google.’’
FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz said the outcome ‘‘is good for consumers, it is good for competition, it is good for innovation, and it is the right thing to do.’’ Before reaching its conclusion, the FTC reviewed more than 9 million pages of documents submitted by Google and its rivals and grilled top Internet industry executives during sworn depositions.
If Google breaks any part of the agreement, Leibowitz said the FTC can fine the company up to $16,000 per violation.
Google’s ability to protect its search recipe from government-imposed changes represents a major victory for a company that has always tried to portray itself as force for good. The Mountain View, Calif., company has portrayed its dominant search engine as a free service that is constantly tweaking its formula so that people get the information they desire more quickly and concisely.
Google’s tactics also have been extremely lucrative. Although Google has branched into smartphones and many other fields since its founding in a Silicon Valley garage in 1998, Internet search and advertising remain its financial backbone. The services still generate more than 90 percent of Google’s revenue, which now exceeds $50 billion annually.