Search giant averages a White House meeting a week during Obama administration
By Brody Mullins
The Wall Street Journal
WASHINGTON—As the federal government was wrapping up its antitrust investigation of Google Inc., company executives had a flurry of meetings with top officials at the White House and Federal Trade Commission, the agency running the probe.
Google co-founder Larry Page met with FTC officials to discuss settlement talks, according to visitor logs and emails reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt met with Pete Rouse, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, in the White House.
The documents don’t show exactly what was discussed in late 2012. Soon afterward, the FTC closed its investigation after Google agreed to make voluntary changes to its business practices. (See the FTC document on Google).
Google’s access to high-ranking Obama administration officials during a critical phase of the antitrust probe is one sign of the Internet giant’s reach in Washington. Since Mr. Obama took office, employees of the Mountain View, Calif., company have visited the White House for meetings with senior officials about 230 times, or an average of roughly once a week, according to the visitor logs reviewed by the Journal.
One top lobbyist at Google, Johanna Shelton, has had more than 60 meetings at the White House. In comparison, employees of rival Comcast Corp., also known as a force in Washington, have visited the White House a total of about 20 times since Mr. Obama took office.
“We think it is important to have a strong voice in the debate and help policy makers understand our business and the work we do to keep the Internet open, to build great products, and to fuel economic growth,” says Google spokeswoman Niki Christoff.
Jennifer Friedman, a White House spokeswoman, said the FTC “is an independent agency and we respect their independent decision-making.”
She added: “White House officials meet with business executives on a range of issues on a regular basis. These meetings help keep the White House apprised of outside perspectives on important policy issues. Our staff is cognizant that it is inappropriate to discuss issues relating to regulatory enforcement.”
Justin Cole, an FTC spokesman, said: “The FTC is an independent law enforcement agency. Its enforcement decisions are driven by the applicable law and evidence in each case.”
Google’s knack for getting in the room with important government officials is gaining new relevance as scrutiny grows over how the company avoided being hit by the FTC with a potentially damaging antitrust lawsuit. Last week, the Journal reported that the FTC’s competition staff concluded that Google used anticompetitive tactics and abused its monopoly power in ways that harmed Internet users and rivals.
The staff recommended a lawsuit, which would have triggered one of the highest-profile antitrust cases since the Justice Department sued Microsoft Corp. in the 1990s. FTC commissioners voted unanimously to end the probe.
Visitor logs and internal emails reviewed by the Journal describe meetings involving Google, senior White House advisers and top FTC officials between the staff’s recommendation in August 2012 and the vote in January 2013.
On Nov. 6, 2012, the night of Mr. Obama’s re-election, Mr. Schmidt was personally overseeing a voter-turnout software system for Mr. Obama. A few weeks later, Ms. Shelton and a senior antitrust lawyer at Google went to the White House to meet with one of Mr. Obama’s technology advisers.
By the end of the month, the FTC had decided not to file an antitrust lawsuit against the company, according to the agency’s internal emails.
It is unusual for White House aides to talk with officials at a company or agency about law-enforcement matters involving the company or agency. Officials in the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division typically don’t meet with the White House during major investigations.
Google’s efforts in Washington also include a well-funded lobbying operation. Last year, Google spent $16.8 million on lobbyists, more than any other company except for Comcast, according to lobbying disclosures.
The 2014 total by Google is more than triple the company’s lobbying spending in 2010, the year before the FTC antitrust probe began, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Google has about 100 individual lobbyists at 20 lobbying firms.
During Mr. Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, Google employees were the second-largest source of campaign donations to his campaign by any single U.S. company, trailing only Microsoft.
A former Google vice president, Megan Smith, is now the U.S.’s chief technology officer and a high-tech adviser to Mr. Obama. Mr. Schmidt and other Google executives have been part of White House advisory panels, as have officials from other technology companies. Former Google employees helped fix problems with the healthcare.gov website, and Mr. Obama has mentioned the company in half of his State of the Union addresses.
The company’s win-loss record on policy is mixed. The Federal Communications Commission’s rules on net neutrality were stricter than Mr. Schmidt wanted, and Google has been an antagonist of the National Security Agency and its eavesdropping operations. But Google and other Silicon Valley firms prevailed over Hollywood on tough copyright protections.
One of Google’s biggest victories is the defeat of the FTC’s antitrust probe. A lawsuit would have challenged the core of some Google business strategies. In a sign of the stakes, Google announced the hiring of 12 additional lobbying firms one week after news broke that the FTC had begun subpoenaing documents related to the investigation.
According to the visitor logs and emails reviewed by the Journal, on Dec. 12, 2011, Ms. Shelton, the Google lobbyist, and Google General Counsel Kent Walker met with Jason Furman, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. Later that day, Mr. Furman met with several FTC officials, including the chairman of the commission, Jon Leibowitz.
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People familiar with the meetings say Google talked with Mr. Furman about copyright issues. Messrs. Furman and Leibowitz discussed competition in the pharmaceutical industry, according to a person in the meeting.
The same day, Mr. Schmidt and Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, joined other technology companies for a meeting with then-White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley. Mr. Daley met with the FTC chairman at the White House the next day, while Ms. Shelton and Mr. Drummond met with Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, visitor logs show.
Google’s meeting with Mr. Daley was about online privacy, say people familiar with the meeting. Messrs. Daley and Leibowitz talked about judicial nominations. It isn’t clear what was discussed at the other White House meetings.
Mr. Leibowitz says he “would never discuss any investigative matter with anyone at the White House, including the Google investigation,” adding that he never spoke to Messrs. Furman or Daley about it.
“The FTC is an independent agency and Commissioners take their obligations of independence and confidentiality very seriously,” Mr. Leibowitz says.
The FTC staff report in August 2012 recommended against pursuing an antitrust case related to Google’s search-engine business—and in favor of a lawsuit in three other areas. A separate report from the FTC’s economic bureau didn’t favor legal action.
A string of meetings, emails and phone calls followed the staff report. While it is common for companies to communicate with government agencies, especially as investigations near a conclusion, the records reviewed by the Journal suggest more contact than was previously known publicly.
On Nov. 7, a top Google lawyer sent a defense of Google’s business to Mr. Leibowitz and the other FTC commissioners. Two days later, Mr. Drummond of Google spoke with Mr. Leibowitz, emails show.
“Am traveling back home but had a quick question,” wrote Mr. Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer. “Do you have five minutes to chat over the weekend?”
On Nov. 13, Ms. Shelton, the Google lobbyist, and the company’s antitrust counsel met with one of Mr. Obama’s top high-tech advisers in the White House. The meeting was related to Motorola patents, people familiar with the meeting say.
The next day, senior members of the FTC held an all hands “state of play” meeting on the Google investigation, emails show.
Mr. Page, Google’s co-founder, met with the FTC on Nov. 27 to discuss settlement talks. The next day, a senior FTC aide told other members of the agency’s staff that “we’re going to start our settlement discussions with Google,” according to an email. Mr. Schmidt met with Mr. Rouse, the senior White House adviser, on Nov. 30.
For the next month, FTC officials and Google worked to bring the investigation to a close, emails show. Messrs. Drummond and Leibowitz exchanged emails and phone calls over the year-end holidays while on family vacations and on New Year’s Eve.
“At your service to close this out,” Mr. Drummond wrote to the FTC chairman on Dec. 17, 2012.
Write to Brody Mullins at firstname.lastname@example.org