FTC chairman expected to step down from post

There is increasing chatter in Washington that Jon Leibowitz is likely to step down as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sometime after the election.

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Leibowitz has served on the commission since 2004 and has been chairman of the agency since 2009. In March, the Senate confirmed Leibowitz to a second term as chairman.

Asked by The Hill on Wednesday about his plans, Leibowitz said he loves his job, but declined to comment further.

But one person who has spoken to Leibowitz directly about his plans said the chairman intends to step aside late this year or early next year and head to the private sector.

Other sources who follow the FTC closely said they have heard the same thing.

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The FTC is nearing the end of its sweeping antitrust investigation into Google's business practices. Leibowitz has said repeatedly that he hopes to make a decision about whether to take legal action against the company by the end of the year.

The decision in the Google case could be one of Leibowitz's last acts as chairman, and could be the capstone of his tenure. 

If the FTC takes Google to court, it would be one of the agency's highest-profile cases ever. In recent years, the Justice Department, which shares jurisdiction with the FTC over competition enforcement, has taken on most of the major antitrust cases. 

The FTC is investigating whether Google manipulates its search results to ensure that its own services, such as YouTube, Google Maps and Google Plus, 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 65 percent market share — to stifle competition.

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.

The FTC has been coordinating its probe with European regulators.

In a sign that the FTC could be preparing for a high-stakes trial, the agency in April brought on a prominent litigator, Beth A. Wilkinson, to help with its investigation. 

Wilkinson’s background isn’t in antitrust issues, but she is an experienced prosecutor who presented the closing argument that resulted in the death penalty for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Leibowitz has also made privacy protection a top priority.

There are few privacy protection laws on the books, but the FTC has used its consumer protection authority to go after companies that make promises in their privacy policies but fail to live up to them.

In the past two years, the FTC has settled charges with Google, Facebook and, most recently, Myspace for violating their privacy agreements. The agency also settled charges with Twitter in 2010 that the company had inadequate data protection standards.

Those cases all fell under the FTC's jurisdiction over "unfair or deceptive" trade practices. 

Leibowitz is also pushing Web browsers and online advertisers to implement a "Do Not Track" feature that would allow users to prevent advertisers from tracking their online activity. 

David Balto, an antitrust attorney who has worked at the FTC, said that if Leibowitz steps aside and President Obama wins reelection, the leading contenders for the chairmanship would be the two current Democratic commissioners — Julie Brill and Edith Ramirez. 

He said Brill would have an edge because of her experience, and predicted that if she takes over the FTC, the agency would retain its focus on privacy protection. 

"If anything, it would be ramped up under Brill," Balto said.