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Google-gate: 'Toothless' watchdog FTC nibbles furiously on journalists

We'll make sure this never happens again – the public finding out about it, that is

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has responded to critics in the media who claim the regulator dropped an investigation into Google after buckling under pressure from the White House and the powerful advertising giant.

Back in 2012, staff at the US watchdog accused Google of unfairly burying rivals in its search results, among other shenanigans, but the probe was ultimately killed off by the FTC's commissioners. Google tweaked the way it treated competitors, and denied it broke US antitrust laws.

In a joint statement today, three of the five FTC commissioners – Edith Ramirez, Julie Brill and Maureen K. Ohlhausen – said there "was no legal basis for action" against Google "with respect to the main focus of the investigation – search."

The trio accuse the Wall Street Journal in particular of making "a number of misleading inferences and suggestions about the integrity of the FTC’s investigation" in its coverage of Google-gate, and complained the paper has created a "misleading narrative" for which "not a single fact is offered."

Notably, the statement does not question the fact that the FTC and White House had a series of meetings with Google executives in the immediate lead-up to the FTC's decision to drop its investigation into Google. But it does call the confabs "disparate and unrelated."

Nor does the statement deny that there were a number of other concerns raised by the FTC's staff over Google's business practices that were resolved by Google agreeing to some voluntary changes to avoid an antitrust lawsuit.

The statement does argue, however, that "over the last two years, Google has abided by those commitments," and rejects the suggestion that the FTC commissioners' decision to close the investigation went against staff recommendations.

Read this one carefully

In what was no doubt a very carefully crafted sentence, the three commissioners state that: "Contrary to recent press reports, the Commission’s decision on the search allegations was in accord with the recommendations of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, Bureau of Economics, and Office of General Counsel."

The controversy arose when the WSJ was "accidentally" given an internal confidential FTC document in response to a more general Freedom-of-Information request, a document that outlined the depth of Google's misbehavior and the fact that FTC staff recommended taking Google to task for it. As we revealed earlier today, Google has an especially close relationship to the Obama administration.

The commissioners do regret the information-leak part of the saga: "The Commission takes seriously its obligation to maintain the confidentiality of business and other sensitive information provided to the agency by all parties involved in our investigations. We are taking additional steps to ensure that such a disclosure does not occur in the future."

Presumably those steps will include an additional process where the commissioners themselves check that no documents suggesting collusion with companies under investigation or undue political influence from the White House are ever allowed out of the FTC archives. ®

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