Senate may probe FTC decision to give Google a ‘pass’
A top lawmaker wants to probe how Google dodged a potentially damaging US antitrust lawsuit, The Post has learned.
The Senate antitrust subcommittee, under Republican Chairman Michael S. Lee of Utah, is planning to launch an investigation into the Federal Trade Commission’s decision to close its probe of the search giant in 2013, according to three sources.
Lee wants to know why FTC commissioners voted to end the probe despite a recommendation from competition committee staffers that the agency sue Google over practices that harmed business rivals.
The Senate panel would likely subpoena documents, if it receives Justice Department approval, to see if White House officials had any influence on the five commissioners.
“[Lee] is going to drag the commissioners in,” said one source.
Lee — a critic of Google who held hearings in 2011 over whether the company used anti-competitive tactics to boost its search engine — is seizing on a Wall Street Journal report last week that suggested Google’s close ties to the White House helped it escape regulators.
At the time of the FTC probe, the search giant had visited the White House often, and had visited 230 times, or once a week, since President Obama had been in charge, according to the Journal.
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt also helped Obama’s re-election campaign and has a friendly relationship with the administration.
Google responded to the Journal, saying Microsoft made more visits to the White House and any suggestion of improper influence is off-base.
The Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee will start the ball rolling by holding a hearing to grill FTC officials, sources said.
Three of the FTC’s current commissioners were also sitting at the time of the Google probe vote. The FTC chairman at the time, Jon Leibowitz, is now a partner at the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell.
Google executives might also be called to testify before the Senate subcommittee.
The FTC’s competition staff in 2012 recommended suing Google over three practices deemed harmful to consumers and rivals, including “scraping” content illegally from other sites and restricting advertisers from placing ads with rivals.
Instead of suing, however, the FTC reached an agreement with Google in January 2013, in which the search giant voluntarily agreed to change its practices to appease regulators.
It is not unusual for FTC commissioners to vote against taking legal action when different divisions of the agency’s staff fail to reach a consensus, a DC source said.
In the case of Google, the Competition Bureau recommended action, while the Economics Bureau disagreed.
“If the hearing is on the merits of the FTC decision, then it will be nothing but a snoozer,” the source said.
However, “if the senator finds evidence of an impropriety that looks like an agreement or some effort by the White House to intervene this could get a little more serious.”
The FTC declined to comment. Lee and Google didn’t respond to a request for comment by presstime.