Google’s White House Contacts During FTC Case Spark Review

The company logo is painted on the wall in the lobby of Google's Washington headquarters, January 8, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The chairman of a U.S. Senate antitrust panel will look into Google Inc.’s communications with the White House ahead of a decision by the Federal Trade Commission to close an investigation into the company’s search practices in 2013 without an enforcement action.

Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who leads the Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel, also wants information about how a confidential FTC report on Google’s practices was released by the agency, Emily Long, a spokeswoman for the senator, said in an e-mail on Monday.

“We are not likely at this time to re-examine the underlying merits of the investigation, which was closed,” Long said. “Our interest is in oversight.”

Lee’s review was prompted by the FTC’s release of a portion of a confidential report on Google by the agency’s staff that determined the company “unlawfully maintained its monopoly” over Internet searches and that its conduct had harmed consumers.

The Wall Street Journal reported on the document earlier this month and on meetings at the time between White House officials and Google representatives. Bloomberg News also obtained a copy of the document, which included only the even-numbered pages.

Lee plans to look into how the report was disclosed in response to a public-records request, said a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity. He’s also interested in whether the report provides a complete picture of the reasons the investigation was closed and whether the FTC should do more to explain the reasons for its action, the person said.

No Hearing

The senator, who also seeks information about the FTC’s communications with the White House, doesn’t plan to ask the agency to reopen the investigation absent any new evidence, according to the person. A hearing isn’t planned at this point.

“We look forward to discussing these matters with Senator Lee’s office,” said Justin Cole, an FTC spokesman.

White House spokeswoman Jen Friedman said administration officials regularly meet with business executives about a “range of issues.”

“The FTC is an independent agency and we respect their independent decision-making,” she said in a statement. “Our staff is cognizant that it is inappropriate to discuss issues relating to regulatory enforcement.”

Mississippi Case

Separately, a federal judge in Mississippi said in a March 27 decision that Google is likely to prevail in a lawsuit against the state’s attorney general, Jim Hood, over third-party content on its search engine and YouTube site. Google is seeking a court order that Hood, who has subpoenaed the company, is prohibited under federal law, including the First Amendment, from bringing civil or criminal charges against Google.

Google agreed in January 2013 to change some of its business practices following a 20-month antitrust investigation by the FTC into whether the Mountain View, California-based company skewed search results to favor its own services. Jon Leibowitz, the FTC chairman who led the probe, defended the decision to close the matter, saying the agency conducted a thorough investigation. The commission voted 5-0 to close the investigation into Google’s search practices.

Last week, three FTC commissioners -- Chairwoman Edith Ramirez, Julie Brill, and Maureen Ohlhausen -- said in a statement that their decision was “in accord” with recommendations by the agency’s staff. They also said they “regret the inadvertent disclosure of confidential documents and information.”

Google spokeswoman Niki Christoff declined to comment on Lee’s inquiry.

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