Feds ramp up probe of Google by hiring outside lawyer to assist case

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has hired a prominent lawyer to help with its investigation of Google, a sign that the agency could be seriously considering an antitrust lawsuit against the Internet giant.

It is just the third time in the last decade the FTC has brought on an outside lawyer to help with a case. 

The FTC on Thursday hired Beth A. Wilkinson, a successful litigator who has worked for the Justice Department and represented numerous large corporations in high-stakes trials. She is now a partner with the firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. 

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In 1995, Wilkinson played a key role in arguing the government's case against the Oklahoma City bombers. She delivered the closing argument that resulted in the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh and the closing argument that resulted in the conviction of Terry Nichols. 

“We are delighted to have someone of her caliber helping us on such an important matter for the commission," Richard Feinstein, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, said in a statement.

The hire does not mean that the FTC has made a decision about whether to sue Google, but it does indicate the agency is taking a hard look at the company's business practices.

The FTC's probe is reportedly focusing on whether Google manipulates its search formula to ensure that its own services, such as YouTube, Google Maps and Google Plus, appear at the top of the results.

FTC officials, including Chairman Jon Leibowitz, have said they believe their agency has the authority to bring a "pure Section 5" case against a company. In such a case, the FTC would only have to show that a company engaged in "unfair methods of competition" and not that the behavior harms consumers.

Observers have speculated that Google would serve as a good case to test the limits of the FTC's Section 5 powers. Under the FTC's traditional authority, it would have to prove that a company's behavior harms consumers, which would be difficult considering Google offers most of its services for free.

A sweeping antitrust case against Google could be devastating for the company.

The Justice Department's antitrust suit against Microsoft in the early part of the last decade drained the company of resources and led some of its most talented employees to leave.

Google declined to comment on the FTC's hire.