In a reversal of regulatory fortune, Google has won approval from the Federal Trade Commission for its $750 million acquisition of the mobile advertising company, AdMob.
SAN FRANCISCO — In a reversal of regulatory fortune, Google has won approval from the Federal Trade Commission for its $750 million acquisition of the mobile advertising company, AdMob.
As recently as last month, FTC staff members appeared ready to urge the agency’s five commissioners to challenge Google’s purchase of the startup in court, on the basis that it would give Google an unassailable position in the nascent market for ads on mobile phones.
But the commissioners voted 5-0 to approve the deal, concluding in a statement that the merger was “unlikely to harm competition in the emerging market for mobile advertising networks.”
The surprising endorsement, which the FTC announced Friday on its website, stems from recent developments in the online advertising market. In December, Apple acquired Quattro Wireless, an AdMob rival. Then last month, Apple announced its own mobile advertising network, called iAd, which will allow large advertisers to run multimedia ads within applications running on the iPhone.
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The FTC said the combination of Google and AdMob raised “serious antitrust issues,” but those concerns “ultimately were overshadowed by recent developments in the market, most notably a move by Apple Computer.”
Google responded to the decision in a post on its corporate blog. “As mobile phone usage increases, growth in mobile advertising is only going to accelerate,” wrote Susan Wojcicki, Google’s vice president of product management.
“This benefits mobile developers and publishers who will get better advertising solutions, marketers who will find new ways to reach consumers, and users who will get better ads and more free content.”
Complicating the FTC’s review of the purchase, several developers of applications for cellphones who were interviewed by the commission publicly detailed those conversations on their blogs, saying they told the commission that there were no good reasons to block the purchase.
The FTC staff was “very reluctant to accept my argument that Apple/Quattro was a bigger threat for an iPhone developer like us,” wrote an executive at Naan Studio, which makes Twitter applications for phones, in one such blog account. “One of the staff told me it was irrelevant, and curtailed the discussion.”
Google would have likely submitted such statements to the court as evidence that developers did not believe they would be harmed by the deal.
David Balto, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank, and a former antitrust lawyer at the FTC, said the agency was hampered by the lack of history in the mobile market.
“The market simply did not exist in a significant fashion a year or so ago. Thus, the past could not testify as to the future harm of the merger,” Balto said. “More importantly, the rapid pace of change in the market undermined any coherent story by the FTC.”
According to people familiar with the government’s legal strategy, the agency was prepared to use Section 7 of the Clayton Antitrust Act, which gives the government discretion to block mergers “where the effect may substantially lessen competition,” even if the anticompetitive practices are in their early stages.
But that would have been a tough case to bring, said David Yoffie, a professor of international business administration at the Harvard Business School.
“Although Google may have a dominant position in Internet search advertising, the mobile ad market is still fragmented, embryonic and potentially vulnerable to another company, Apple, dominating the competition,” Yoffie said. “Ironically, Google might make this market more competitive.”
Google announced its intent to acquire AdMob in November, plucking the startup from the grip of Apple, which was also negotiating to buy it.