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Did Obama Help Google Avoid Antitrust Sanctions? A Senate Panel Will Investigate

The Senate’s antitrust subcommittee plans to look into what role the White House played in an FTC probe.

​It's no secret that many Google honchos—including executive chairman Eric Schmidt—have long enjoyed a close relationship with President Obama's White House.

Now, a key Senate panel wants to know if those ties may have influenced the federal government's 2013 decision not to charge Google with antitrust violations.

Sen. Mike Lee, the influential Utah Republican who chairs the Senate's antitrust subcommittee, plans to investigate what role the White House may have played in the Federal Trade Commission's probe of the search giant, Lee's office confirmed to Motherboard on Monday.


The Senate's investigation comes in the wake of the accidental disclosure of a confidential 2012 FTC staff report that concluded that Google's behavior harmed its competitors and stifled online innovation. Despite those conclusions, the FTC's five commissioners ultimately decided not to sue Google for antitrust violations after a two-year probe.

"We are interested in how the FTC allowed a confidential report to be disclosed and, second, what conversations if any the FTC or Google had with the White House about the pending investigation," Emily Long, a spokesperson for Sen. Lee, said in an emailed statement.

Long said the subcommittee is "not likely at this time to reexamine the underlying merits of the investigation which was closed. Our interest is in oversight." She added that there are no plans for a hearing at this time.

A coalition of Google's rivals, led by Microsoft, has long complained that the search giant used its dominant market power to harm competitors, particularly in search categories like travel, jobs, health, and real estate. Google was also accused of unfairly demoting its rivals' search results in order to steer users toward Google's own competing products.

"Of course we've had many meetings at the White House over the years."

The FTC ultimately declined to sue Google, as part of an agreement in which the tech titan pledged to make relatively modest, voluntary changes to its search engine practices. That outcome, which enraged Google's rivals, was widely viewed as a minor slap on the wrist.


The disclosure of the 2012 FTC staff report, and the well-known close relationship between Google executives and the White House, has prompted some critics to raise questions about whether executive branch officials pressured the FTC, an independent agency, to go easy on the company. (Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, has been a major donor and informal adviser to Obama dating back to his first presidential campaign.)

Those concerns echo similar questions about whether the White House exerted improper influence over the Federal Communications Commission's recently approved net neutrality rules. Like the FTC, the FCC is an independent agency that is supposed to operate free from White House meddling.

Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Boston Monday, White House spokesperson Eric Schultz said that the FTC is "an independent organization which makes decisions independently" and referred questions to that agency.

"I know that there was a news report about meetings with Google executives at the White House, and I would tell you that we meet with business leaders all the time," Schultz added.

Schultz was presumably referring to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal that described numerous meetings between Google executives and White House and FTC officials at the time the antitrust probe was ongoing.

In a statement issued last week, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez, and Commissioners Julie Brill and Maureen K. Ohlhausen, said that report made "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," the FTC officials said.

Google declined to comment on news of the Senate's new probe, and pointed to a recent blog post by Rachel Whetstone, Google's senior vice president for communications and policy, in which she highlighted several "inaccuracies" in the Journal's report.

"Of course we've had many meetings at the White House over the years," Whetstone wrote. She said those meetings "were not to discuss the antitrust investigation."