Feds: We didn't give Google a free pass

Feds: We didn't give Google a free pass
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Federal regulators are pushing back against suggestions that they gave Google a free pass under antitrust law, potentially out of deference to the Obama administration.

After stories in the Wall Street Journal showing that Federal Trade Commission (FTC) staff urged the agency to take action against the Web giant — which it ultimately did not — and detailing Google’s close ties to the White House, members of the FTC are pushing back.

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“Based on a comprehensive review of the voluminous record and extensive internal analysis... all five Commissioners (three Democrats and two Republicans) agreed that there was no legal basis for action with respect to the main focus of the investigation – search,” FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez and Commissioners Julie Brill and Maureen Ohlhausen said in a joint statement on Wednesday. There are five members of the FTC, but the two other current commissioners — Joshua Wright and Terrell McSweeny — were not on the commission while it was reviewing Google’s practices.

Last week, the Journal reported on an FTC staff analysis from its 2012 investigation of Google, which concluded that the Web had used anticompetitive tactics to promote its search engine. While the FTC itself ultimately declined to press charges, the staff report — which was mistakenly obtained as part of a request under the Freedom of Information Act — seemed to show strong support for proceeding with what would have been an extremely high-profile lawsuit. 

Separately, on Wednesday, the Journal detailed a “flurry” of meetings between Google executives and top officials at the White House and FTC during the time of the investigation. The story found that Google officials have visited the White House a total of about 230 times, which adds up to about once per week. 

The three FTC commissioners accused that story of making “misleading inferences and suggestions” not grounded in actual facts.

Wednesday’s 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,” they claim. “Not a single fact is offered to substantiate this misleading narrative.”

The staff report obtained by the newspaper last week is “only a fraction” of the analysis performed by the FTC, they added.