Google's ties to the White House

A weekly meeting with the White House goes a long way.

As I’ve written on numerous occasions, Google’s intrusion into the power structures of Washington over the past five years is something we ought to keep an eye on. Specifically, Google’s escape from the Federal Trade Commission’s 2012 antitrust investigation into its practices of influencing searches to promote its own products serves as Exhibit A for the search engine giant’s crony practices.

Now, a new report from the Wall Street Journal examining visitor logs and emails between Google, the White House, and the FTC sheds new light on Google’s unscathed emergence from the FTC’s probe. During Obama’s presidency, Google employees have made 230 visits to the White House to meet with senior officials. That works about to about once a week.

As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, the FTC competition staff “concluded that Google used anticompetitive tactics and abused its monopoly power in ways that harmed Internet users and rivals,” and suggested bringing a lawsuit. Had the FTC moved forward with its staff’s recommendation to sue Google, it would have been the most significant antitrust lawsuit since Microsoft was sued by the Justice Department in the 1990s.

The Wall Street Journal goes on to list a slew of facts further showing the length and breadth of Google’s tentacles in Washington. Google’s spending on lobbying last year was $16.8 million – triple what it was in 2010. That’s four times as much as Apple, twice as much as Microsoft and more than $4 million more than Exxon Mobil. Only Comcast spent more, disclosures show, but has not received the degree of access that Google has exercised. Additionally, the U.S. Chief Technology Officer, Megan Smith, used to be a Google vice president. And Google Chairman Eric Schmidt oversaw the Obama campaign’s voter-turnout software system in 2012.

It just so happens that Schmidt’s campaign assistance occurred right between the time when the FTC staff recommended bringing a lawsuit in August 2012 and when the FTC voted against it in January 2013. In fact, only one U.S. company gave more than Google employees to support Obama’s reelection campaign.

Google’s friendliness to the Obama administration raises all sorts of questions, but so far official responses to the FTC’s decision not to pursue a lawsuit don’t really tell us anything. Spokespeople from the White House and the FTC both stress that the FTC is an independent agency, and a Google spokeswoman said the company thinks “it is important to have a strong voice in the debate and help policy makers understand our business and the work we do.”

A “strong voice?” With the White House at Google’s beck and call, that seems to be putting it lightly.