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Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) is the latest congressional Democrat to take aim at Google Inc., asking the Federal Trade Commission to release internal reports that informed its 2013 decision not to sue the company for rigging search results.
The FTC’s decision not to pursue Google as an illegal monopolist contrasts with the European Commission’s recent decision to fine Google $2.8 billion for the same conduct. The EU’s case against Google has brought renewed interest in how the search engine uses its dominance in the U.S.
Ellison’s letter is just one part of a broader narrative from Democrats about the danger of large companies. “Working people get screwed these days partly because corporations have too much power in our country,” Ellison told Bloomberg BNA.
These questions also came up in the Obama administration. A partially released report from the FTC competition staff in 2012 concluded that Google’s conduct had the “natural and probable effect” of harming competition in the U.S. market and that Google presented no pro-competitive excuse for its conduct.
That staff report — or rather the other half of it — is what Ellison wants the FTC to release. His Oct. 11 letter seeking the report also asks acting FTC Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen to release a report by the FTC’s economic staff that purportedly recommended against suing Google.
“Given the impact Google has on small businesses, the flow of information, and that Google controls an outsize portion of the market for online search and online advertising, the public has a right to know what the Federal Trade Commission found in its investigation into Google,” Ellison said in his letter.
Ellison told Bloomberg BNA that the letter is intended to let regulators know Congress has an eye on them. “Google’s monopoly over all online searches is a troubling symptom of that problem, so we’re going to keep the pressure on the FTC to make sure it does its job in ensuring that no one company can control the entire market for a service. It’s our job in government to help level the playing field between everyday Americans and powerful corporations,” he said.
The EU started investigating Google in 2010 looking at four concerns — its “favorable treatment” of its own vertical search services over competitors in search results, its practice of “scraping” third party content to supplement its offerings, its exclusivity agreements with publishers for search advertising services, and its restrictions on portability of online advertising campaigns.
The U.S. was looking at similar conduct. The FTC competition staff recommended that the commission enforce against Google on four grounds roughly parallel those the EU was investigating, based on the mistakenly released partial staff report. Instead, the FTC voted to accept a voluntary agreement from Google to change some of its business practices to resolve FTC concerns.
The EU continued its investigation and on June 27 fined Google $2.8 billion for abusing “its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.” Google is appealing the decision.
The EU action has brought calls to reopen the case in the U.S. The Utah and Washington D.C. attorneys general wrote a letter to the FTC in 2016 requesting that it “revisit” its decision on Google’s dominance in search in light of “new information and developments that have become available” since the FTC’s 2013 action.
“The antitrust charges against Google are one of the biggest issues out there,” Seth Bloom, an antitrust attorney at Bloom Strategic Counsel LLC in Washington, told Bloomberg BNA. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they took a fresh look at it.”
The FTC does have an ongoing investigation into Google, specifically on its Android operating system for smart phones. The EU has already reached a preliminary decision that Google abused its dominance in the smart phone market. The EU said that Google has stifled choice and innovation in mobile apps and services through a mobile platform strategy to protect and expand its dominant position in general internet search.
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Ellison's letter to the FTC is at http://src.bna.com/tlT.
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