Senate Republicans call for hearing on FTC’s Obama-era Google decision


Three Senate Republicans on Thursday called for a Judiciary Committee hearing on the Obama-era Federal Trade Commission’s decision not to sue Google after a 19-month investigation. 

The push led by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), nearly a decade after the agency’s decision, comes on the heels of a Politico report on 312 pages of internal memos about the investigation that revealed the agency underestimated Google’s market share and rejected antitrust lawyers’ recommendation to sue Google. 

The call for the hearing also comes as lawmakers are taking a closer look at the market power of Google and other top tech companies. 

Hawley was joined by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) in sending a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) calling for a committee hearing “immediately” over the newly reported details. 

“The reporting confirms what has become increasingly apparent in recent years: confronted with the most consequential antitrust case in a generation, and ample evidence of market dominance and misconduct, the nation’s antitrust enforcers failed to act,” the GOP senators wrote. 

The Republicans sent a separate letter to acting FTC Chairwoman Rebecca Kelly Slaughter urging the agency to cooperate with congressional efforts. 

The FTC declined to comment. A spokesperson for Durbin did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The letter was sent the same day Slaughter made her congressional debut as acting FTC chair during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on antitrust. It is one of a series of hearings the House committee has held to examine the market power of the tech giants and weigh legislative action. 

Asked about the report during the hearing, Slaughter said, “I wish a complaint had been filed at the time.” 

She added that “many of the issues” part of the FTC investigation are “very much at play” in other current cases facing Google from the Department of Justice and state attorneys general. 

“I think it’s great that our sister agencies are taking a hard look and bringing these hard cases. I also think it’s incumbent on the FTC to bring hard cases,” she said.

Politico’s report published Tuesday revealed that the FTC’s antitrust lawyers at the time advised the commission to sue Google over its efforts to own the mobile search market in the U.S. The commissioners, however, rejected the recommendation. 

Google’s market power in mobile search is the focus of the Department of Justice lawsuit filed against the Silicon Valley giant in October, under the Trump administration. 

The Politico report also revealed that the FTC expected consumers to rely mainly on computers to search for information, but in the years that followed, the majority of those searches took place on phones and tablets. Google’s phone and tablet products use the company’s own search engine as the default, another aspect of the company that is now under scrutiny as officials take a closer look at potentially anticompetitive practices. 

Google’s competition legal director, Rosie Lipscomb, published a blog post Tuesday in response to the Politico report. Lipscomb said that the documents “show why, after a comprehensive review, the Federal Trade Commissioners all voted to close their investigation nearly a decade ago.”

“The memos conclusively confirm that the decision to not bring an antitrust case against the design of Google’s search engine was supported by clear and unambiguous recommendations by all sections of the FTC who reviewed it, including the Bureau of Competition, the Bureau of Consumer Protection, the Bureau of Economics and the Office of the General Counsel,” Lipscomb said.

Google is facing several legal challenges now over alleged anticompetitive behavior. 

In addition to the Justice Department suit, which a number of states have joined, the company is facing two state-led efforts. 

One, led by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser (D) and Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson (R), similarly focuses on Google’s search market power. 

A separate lawsuit led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) focuses on allegations that Google stifled competition in the advertising technology market. 

Google has denied the allegations. 

Allegations against Google are likely to come up during Thursday’s House hearing, where Weiser and Peterson are testifying along with Slaughter.

-Updated 5:23 p.m.

Tags antitrust Dick Durbin Google Josh Hawley Marsha Blackburn Mike Lee

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