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FTC brings in a ringer to run Google antitrust investigation

The move is seen as a harbinger that the agency is preparing a lawsuit against the search engine giant

Perhaps Google Inc. should be on watch. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced yesterday that it hired Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison Partner Beth Wilkinson to lead its antitrust investigation into whether Google has taken advantage of its prominence in web search advertising.

The FTC, which opened its antitrust investigation of Google’s business practices in June 2011, also is investigating whether Google is using control of its Android mobile operating system to discourage smartphone makers from using rival company’s applications.

Observers are calling the FTC’s move significant, should the agency look to pursue litigation against Google.

Wilkinson, a former Justice Department prosecutor and general counsel of Fannie Mae from 2006 to 2008, is renowned for winning the death sentence against Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and litigating for companies including Pfizer Inc. and Philip Morris International Inc. She has never lost a case.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Wilkinson is expected to be intimately involved in the FTC’s decision on whether to bring a complaint against Google, and she would likely be a key part of any litigation effort.

FTC Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch told the Journal that Wilkinson would be a mentor to the agency’s staff, and “is somebody who is going to carry out the duties of a trial lawyer.” He added that the agency has yet to reach any conclusions about Google.

In September 2011, Google faced an inquiry before the Senate antitrust committee over the allegations that it unfairly dominates web search engines by suppressing information from competing companies in favor of its own.

At the hearing, Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt (who testified this week in Google’s ongoing litigation with Oracle) openly welcomed questions from the FTC and the Senate, and defended his company by contrasting it with Microsoft Corp. and the legal debacle it endured from antitrust investigators in the 1990s.

Much of the hearing focused on Google’s rapid rise to Internet dominance during its relatively short existence. Google began as a simple search engine that directed consumers to other sites for the most relevant content, but quickly evolved to provide more functionality and services to its users. In order to do so, the company acquired many businesses and applications that it now offers as its own.

For more, read the Wall Street Journal and BloombergBusinessweek.

For InsideCounsel’s coverage of the FTC’s antitrust investigations into Google, read:

DOJ and FTC conduct simultaneous antitrust investigations at Google

Google assuredly refutes antitrust allegations at Senate inquiry

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