The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said on Thursday it had hired a prominent trial lawyer and former federal prosecutor to oversee its broad investigation into Google’s business practices, signaling the agency is troubled by what it has discovered so far in its year-old probe.
Former Department of Justice prosecutor Beth Wilkinson will take the reins as the commission digs deeper into allegations that Google Inc has been abusing its dominance of Internet search to stifle competition and drive up online advertising prices.
Wilkinson is best known for helping convict Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 1997. Now a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, in Washington, Wilkinson also has experience in antitrust law and white-collar criminal cases.
The FTC said Wilkinson’s hiring shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign it intends to sue Google.
“We are delighted to have someone of her caliber helping us on such an important matter,” said Richard Feinstein, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition.
Wilkinson’s involvement in the case is a clear sign that the FTC’s staff has uncovered problems that may require taking Google to court to resolve, said Dave Wales, who preceded Feinstein as the FTC’s director of competition.
“This may not be a declaration of all-out war, but it’s like things have been ratcheted up to Defcon 4,” said Wales, now a partner at the law firm of Jones Day. “You don’t do something like this unless you think there is a good chance there will be litigation.”
Wilkinson’s involvement in the investigation may also give the FTC more leverage to negotiate a settlement, Wales said.
Google declined to comment on Wilkinson’s hiring.
Meanwhile, Google is firing back at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on an investigation that led to a US$25,000 fine against the Internet search leader.
In a letter sent on Thursday, Google disputed the reason for the fine. The FCC contends Google impeded an agency investigation into whether the company had violated US laws by collecting personal information transmitted over unsecured Wi-Fi networks while photographing neighborhoods from 2007 to 2010 for the Street View feature on its mapping service.
Google blames the FCC for dragging out an investigation that lasted 17 months. In its letter, Google said it regularly responded to the FCC’s requests, but sometimes didn’t hear back from the agency for seven to 12 weeks.
Despite its misgivings, Google says it decided to pay the fine to close the case.