Google was far closer to being dragged into court by US watchdog the FTC than anyone previously believed, documents have revealed.
The Wall Street Journal has obtained and published an internal FTC report that accuses Google of wrongdoing, following a 2012 antitrust probe by the regulator into the company's dominance online.
That FTC investigation did not result in any antitrust charges being brought against the California biz. Google is said to have made "voluntary" changes to its practices, however.
FTC staff decided that Google had used its dominant position in the worlds of web search and advertising to muscle out rivals, though the regulator's officials did not go so far as to recommend legal action against the powerful and extremely rich company.
Google's "conduct has resulted — and will result — in real harm to consumers and to innovation in the online search and advertising markets," FTC employees concluded in their probe.
According to the WSJ, the FTC sent over a non-redacted report from the investigation in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The papers detail investigations and findings previously not disclosed to the public.
Officials claimed Google copied material from rival websites – such as reviews and ratings – to place alongside search results, and threatened to de-list anyone who complained about the practice.
"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 FTC document reads, adding that Google would "use its monopoly power over search to extract the fruits of its rivals’ innovations."
The report also suggests that Google unfairly favored its own websites over rival services – such as shopping sites – and signed ad partners to exclusive deals to lock out competing ad-backed search engines.
Despite the claims, federal investigators did not believe an antitrust case was warranted, and so Google was not charged, the WSJ reports.
In response to the newspaper's article, Google's general counsel Kent Walker told The Register: "After an exhaustive 19-month review, covering nine million pages of documents and many hours of testimony, the FTC staff and all five FTC Commissioners agreed that there was no need to take action on how we rank and display search results."
The lawyer added: "Speculation about potential consumer and competitor harm turned out to be entirely wrong. And our competitors are thriving."
Though Google escaped the wrath of the FTC, it still potentially faces charges from European regulators. The web goliath is the subject of a similar antitrust probe from the EU. It has also flexed its muscles against a US state's attorney general in a dustup over links to drugs turning up in search results. ®