A letter has been sent to the Federal Trad Commission (FTC) by Yelp, asserting that Google improperly used Yelp images in local search results in violation of its 2013 antitrust settlement with the regulatory agency.  Aside from the FTC, Yelp sent the letter to several members of Congress and state attorneys general, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

That settlement concluded nearly two years of investigations and political maneuvering. As part of the agreement, Google said it would:

[M]ake available a web-based notice form that provides website owners with the option to opt out from display on Google’s Covered Webpages of content from their website that has been crawled by Google. When a website owner exercises this option, Google will cease displaying crawled content from the domain name designated by the website owner on Covered Webpages on the google.com domain in the United States. Website owners will be able to exercise the opt-out described above by completing a web-based notice form. Google will implement the opt-out within 30 business days of receiving a properly completed notice form . . .

Supposedly, the commitment lasts through the end of this year, even though it isn’t explicitly stated in the FTC discussion of the settlement or Google’s accompanying letter to the FTC.

The “do not crawl” provision of the settlement agreement came partly in response to 2011 Yelp claims that Google required that the review site allow use of its content on Google Place Pages as a condition of being included in Google’s search index.

The WSJ article cites multiple examples of Yelp images being used in Google Maps:

 

Yelp said it investigated and found that over one hour, Google pulled images from Yelp’s servers nearly 386,000 times for business listings in Google Maps, which Google exempted from its promise to not scrape content. Yelp then searched Google for 150 of the businesses from those map listings and found that for 110 of them, Google used a Yelp photo as the lead image in the businesses’ listings in search results.

For instance, googling “brooklyn zoo williamsburg” on a smartphone yields a box atop the search results with information about the Brooklyn Zoo NY gym in Brooklyn, including its address, hours and reviews. Also included is a photo of the gym’s interior, which was pulled from its Yelp page. Other examples include Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago and the Capital Mall in Olympia, Wash. Users or business owners typically post photos on Yelp.

Assuming that Google ends up being found in violation of the 2013 settlement agreement, every instance “may result in a civil penalty of up to $16,000,” according to the FTC release.  Assuming that every image is treated as a separate violation, this would mean, in theory, there would e penalties of over $6 billion, which, chances are, probably won’t happen.

Who knows what will what will happen in 2018 if the “do not crawl” provision of the agreement ends up expiring at the end of this year.  At that point, Google could possibly continue crawling and inclusion of third-party content over publisher objections.  But will Google actually do that and risk a high-profile outcry from companies like Yelp and others?  We would think not.

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