Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that, during a “critical phase” of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC’s) antitrust investigation of Google, the company had a series of regular meetings at the White House. According to the WSJ’s report, these meetings occurred roughly once a week:
Google’s access to high-ranking Obama administration officials during a critical phase of the antitrust probe is one sign of the Internet giant’s reach in Washington. Since Mr. Obama took office, employees of the Mountain View, Calif., company have visited the White House for meetings with senior officials about 230 times, or an average of roughly once a week, according to the visitor logs reviewed by the Journal.
The article thus suggests Obama Administration intervention in the FTC’s decision-making process. Accordingly, it prompted the agency to respond in an unusual and defensive press release.
The question of any impropriety in the outcome of the investigation is sensitive, given the release earlier this week of a scathing 160-page internal report by the FTC’s Bureau of Competition. The report, via the WSJ, is embedded below.
The Competition Bureau report contains numerous alleged examples and findings that Google had abused its market position, and recommends litigation against the company to prevent potential similar “abuses” in the future. However, in January 2013, the FTC formally decided to settle and close its antitrust investigation, demanding only marginal or minor changes in Google’s operating practices.
In its press release responding to the WSJ article, the FTC said that, based on the totality of evidence reviewed, “the Commission’s decision on the search allegations was in accord with the recommendations of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, Bureau of Economics, and Office of General Counsel.”
Reacting to the report about Google’s frequent White House meetings, the FTC said that there was absolutely no connection between these meetings and its ultimate decision in the investigation:
Today’s Wall Street Journal article “Google Makes Most of Close Ties to White House” makes a number of misleading inferences and suggestions about the integrity of the FTC’s investigation. The article suggests that a series of disparate and unrelated meetings involving FTC officials and executive branch officials or Google representatives somehow affected the Commission’s decision to close the search investigation in early 2013. Not a single fact is offered to substantiate this misleading narrative.
The WSJ article goes further to suggest some sort of quid pro quo between the Obama Administration based on presidential campaign contributions. “During Mr. Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, Google employees were the second-largest source of campaign donations to his campaign by any single U.S. company, trailing only Microsoft,” the article states.
The Rupert Murdoch-owned, editorially conservative Wall Street Journal may have its own reasons for pushing a “conspiracy theory” against the Obama Administration. However, the combination of the internal FTC report and the disclosure of the White House meetings does create at least an appearance of a politically-driven outcome.