Today: The FTC comes to an agreement with Google (GOOG) on some charges, but says its core search business does not break U.S. antitrust laws. Also: SunPower (SPWRA) zooms higher after selling solar projects, helping the entire sector, as markets trend down.
Google avoids antitrust charges for search business
After an investigation that lasted for more than a year and a half, the Federal Trade Commission said Thursday that Google's dominant search business does not violate U.S. antitrust laws, a huge relief for the Mountain View company that has been accused of using its leading search position to promote its own services.
Google agreed to make changes in other aspects of its business in a deal with the FTC. The company will not "scrape" reviews from competitors like Yelp for use with its own properties, a practice that acquisitions of Zagat's and Frommer's likely makes moot anyway. Google also will be forced to license patents for standard mobile technology that it gained in its Motorola acquisition, which could avoid some major infringement lawsuits between Google and other tech titans such as Microsoft and Apple (AAPL); and make it easier for companies to advertise on rival ad platforms concurrently with Google ads.
Despite those concessions, Google still came out of the process with a big win, as competitors' calls for an antitrust lawsuit focused on search were strongly rejected by FTC officials. The commission unanimously voted to close the antitrust investigation into Google's search product without action and officials strongly stated that the company is acting within the rules.
"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," FTC outside counsel Beth Wilkinson wrote in Thursday's news release. "The evidence did not demonstrate that Google's actions in this area stifled competition in violation of U.S. law."
"Evidence does not support a claim that Google's prominent display of its own content on its general search page was undertaken without legitimate justification," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said at a news conference Thursday.
Google celebrated the investigation's end in a blog post by Chief Legal Officer David Drummond in which he said the FTC's "conclusion is clear: Google's services are good for users and good for competition."
"We're pleased that the FTC and the other authorities that have looked at Google's business practices ... have concluded that we should be free to combine direct answers with web results," Drummond wrote.
Competitors and some advocates were not as pleased with the result as Google, and hope that "other authorities," such as the European Commission, make a different decision than the FTC.
"Google's competitors are looking at this as though it's a slap on the wrist," Arnall Golden Gregory antitrust litigator Jeffrey Jacobovitz told Bloomberg News.
Yelp, which complained of Google placing its reviews on Google properties, was still unhappy after the company agreed to stop that practice, as it believes Google placing its own reviews above Yelp's in search results harms its business.
"The closure of the Commission's investigation ... represents a missed opportunity to protect innovation in the Internet economy, and the consumers and businesses that rely upon it," the San Francisco online-reviews website wrote in a statement.
American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research President Steve Pociask said in an emailed statement that the FTC "failed to use their authority for the betterment of the marketplace and to the advantage of consumers," while FairSearch.org called the decision "disappointing and premature."
Google's critics hope for a different end to Europe's antitrust investigation into Google, which has stretched to nearly three years. However, the EU's leading antitrust official met with Google Chairman Eric Schmidt last month and signaled that a similar -- though slightly stricter -- conclusion could be coming this month.
Google stock trimmed early gains after the announcement, following the overall market down, but still showed a slight gain on the day, closing with a 0.1 percent increase at $723.67. Competitors who had pushed for a suit were mixed, as Yelp gained 2. 3 percent but Microsoft dropped 1.3 percent.
Any weakness in the stock could likely be attributed to other news from Google on Wednesday, as Samsung announced that it would transition some phones from the company's Android mobile operating system to Tizen, a competitor backed by Intel (INTC); and the State Department expressed disappointment with Schmidt's decision to visit North Korea. While Fortune presented CEO Larry Page's vision for the future of the U.S., The Wall Street Journal detailed the company's push to make Google+ a completely integrated part of Google's future.
SunPower deals sends solar stocks shooting higher
The solar industry had a rough 2012, as Chinese production sent prices and revenues down and the fallout from Solyndra's high-profile bankruptcy reverberated throughout the industry. San Jose solar manufacturer SunPower started 2013 off with a bang on Wednesday, however, and the effects showed up in a big way Thursday, when the company's stock exploded nearly 50 percent higher after analysts said that its latest deal is a model for the industry.
SunPower rose 48 percent to $9.07 Thursday after agreeing to sell two solar projects in Southern California to a subsidiary of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway for more than $2 billion. Analysts Sanjay Shrestha and Aditya Satghare of Lazard noted Thursday that the deal should make investors sit up and take notice of "the company's earnings power, strong management team, technological leadership, and global reach."
Investors obviously have noticed SunPower, which also rose Wednesday for a two-day gain of $3.45 a share, or 61.4 percent. Other solar companies joined SunPower's rise Thursday, as newly public San Mateo solar installer SolarCity gained 5.6 percent, U.S. leader First Solar increased 7.6 percent, and Chinese companies Suntech and Yingli rose 13.8 percent and 16.2 percent respectively.
Not all investors are convinced, however: Raymond James analyst Pavel Molchanov said in a note that "the market -- in the context of a classic 'risk-on' trade -- is overreacting to this announcement," and suggested that investors short-sell the stock before SunPower releases its earnings and 2013 guidance. "We think the stock is due for a hefty correction," he wrote.
Wall Street falls as Apple and Facebook's gains turn around
Solar's rise was not the norm Thursday on Wall Street, as stocks sank back down slightly after Wednesday's massive 'fiscal cliff" relief rally, as Investors worried that the Federal Reserve is conflicted about its bond-buying program.
Fed officials are split about how long its stimulus program should continue, even as economic indicators seemed strong: Early indications are that December was a strong month for job growth, with the federal government's count arriving Friday; and auto sales hit a five-year high, according to early figures.
Still, the Fed's concerns sent the three major U.S. indexes down as much as 0.4 percent, with the tech-heavy Nasdaq falling the farthest in a rough day for tech stocks. The SV150 index of Silicon Valley largest technology companies descended even more, losing 0.7 percent.
Apple lost 1.3 percent as analysts continued to be split on the company's future, while a report that the Cupertino tech company would acquire Israeli mapping app startup Waze was shot down by the same blog that initially reported a deal was in the works. Facebook, which had been gaining this week along with Apple, dropped 0.8 percent as it tested a Skype-like app for its Messaging service.
On the positive side, Netflix (NFLX) gained 5 percent after BMO Capital Markets analyst Edward Williams increased his price target for the stock by more than $20, though the target is still less than the Los Gatos company's closing stock price; and Cisco (CSCO) gained 0.5 percent after RBC Capital analyst Mark Sue upgraded the stock.
Silicon Valley tech stocks
The tech-heavy Nasdaq composite index: Down 11.69, or 0.38 percent, to 3,100.57
The blue chip Dow Jones industrial average: Down 21.19, or 0.16 percent, to 13,391.36
And the widely watched Standard & Poor's 500 index: Down 3.05, or 0.21 percent, to 1,459.37
Check in weekday afternoons for the 60-Second Business Break, a summary of news from Mercury News staff writers, The Associated Press, Bloomberg News and other wire services. Contact Jeremy C. Owens at 408-920-5876; follow him at Twitter.com/mercbizbreak.