Senate Republicans fire warning shot at regulators as Google decision looms

Ten Republican senators led by Jim DeMint (S.C.) warned the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Thursday not to stretch its regulatory powers.

The letter to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz does not explicitly mention Google, but amounts to a clear warning to tread carefully as the agency considers whether to sue the Web giant over alleged antitrust violations.

"In the interest of providing more regulatory certainty for American consumers and job creators, we urge the Federal Trade Commission to act with humility and restrain itself to activities for which it has clear legal authority," the senators wrote.

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In addition to DeMint, the letter was signed by GOP Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), Orrin Hatch (Utah), John Thune (N.D.), John Cornyn (Texas), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Roy Blunt (Mo.), John Boozman (Ark.), Pat Toomey (Penn.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.).

DeMint, one of the most conservative members of the Senate, is in line to become the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee in the next Congress. The panel has jurisdiction over the FTC.

The FTC declined to comment.

The agency is concerned that Google is manipulating its search results to ensure that its own services, such as YouTube, Google Maps and Google Shopping, appear above its rivals.

Google's competitors argue that the company shouldn't be allowed to use its dominant search engine — which has about a 67 percent market share — to stifle competition for other services.

The company says there is nothing unfair about its search rankings. Even if the results did boost Google products, the company says, it wouldn’t be illegal.

People familiar with the case say that after a yearlong investigation, the commission staffers have concluded there is reason to believe Google is violating antitrust laws and have recommended that the commission take action.

The commissioners are currently reviewing that recommendation.

Chairman Leibowitz has argued that the FTC has the authority to bring a "pure Section 5" suit against Google, which is when the agency sues a company for anti-competitive conduct without having to prove it harms consumers.

The Republican senators said they take no position on any pending cases, but they said they are "concerned about the apparent eagerness of the Commission under your leadership to expand Section 5 actions without a clear indication of authority or a limiting principle."

"When a federal regulatory agency uses creative theories to expand its activities, entrepreneurs may be deterred from innovating and growing lest they be targeted by government action," they wrote.

They said they are especially concerned that overreaching regulation could stifle growth in the vibrant technology sector.

"We hope the Commission considers the consequences of hampering legitimate business model innovations and market activities of companies under an aimless, expansive, and possibly unauthorized use of the Commission's powers," they wrote. "We support innovation and believe economic expansion will follow if the government acts with humility rather than experimentation."