On the evening of March 23, Johanna Shelton, a senior lobbyist at Google, emailed an official at the Federal Trade Commission with a pointed request: release a public statement that would help the search giant deal with a negative story. Two days later, the agency did just that.
Shelton's email was sent in the wake of a Wall Street Journal article revealing that in 2012, staff at the FTC's bureau of competition recommended antitrust charges against Google over three aspects of its business, though no charges were ever brought. The article was based on a private document the FTC inadvertently released to the Journal. In response to the revelation, the FTC issued only terse statements calling the release of the document unfortunate.
But Shelton, in an email to Heather Hippsley, the FTC's chief of staff, urged the FTC to say more, arguing that the agency's own reputation was at stake.
Google was "deeply troubled" and "puzzled" by the agency's silence on the matter, Shelton said in the email, which emerged in response to a public records request and was obtained by BuzzFeed News. She said the inadvertently released document was being used by Google's rivals to "sow confusion and undermine the FTC's conclusions, especially in Europe."
"We believe it is critical for the FTC to defend its reputation, showing that it followed a thorough process and fully took into account the Bureau of Competition staff memo, among other internal agency opinions including the Bureau of Economics," Shelton said in the email. "A public statement standing by the FTC's ability to make a final decision after assessing differing internal views would go far in the international space to restore the reputation of the FTC, especially on due process."
Two days after the email was sent, and after the Wall Street Journal published another article about Google's relationship with Washington, the FTC released a statement that provided the context Shelton had sought.
The statement, released on March 25, said the critical staff report revealed by the Journal was "only a fraction" of the agency's analysis in the Google investigation. The agency's commissioners, the statement noted, "agreed that there was no legal basis for action with respect to the main focus of the investigation."
Shelton's email, which has not previously been disclosed, shows the extent to which Google has tried to wield influence in Washington. The search giant, which has spent years battling the FTC on various fronts and is currently facing separate antitrust charges in Europe, has built a prodigious lobbying operation that it deploys on matters large and small.
Shelton, for her part, keeps in close contact with government authorities. She has visited the White House more than 60 times, the Journal noted in its follow-up article.
Edith Ramirez, the FTC chair, is scheduled to appear in a routine hearing Friday morning before a House of Representatives panel that oversees the antitrust enforcement agencies.
An FTC spokesperson, Peter Kaplan, told BuzzFeed News that the statement by the commissioners on March 25 was in response to "a Wall Street Journal story that actually ran the day before."
The statement directly addressed that article, titled "Google Makes Most of Close Ties to White House." But it also included the agency's first detailed statement on the record about the inadvertently released document.
A Google spokesperson, Niki Christoff, told BuzzFeed News in an emailed statement: "We were unhappy that the FTC mistakenly provided a confidential internal document to the Wall Street Journal which led to a round of misleading reporting used against us by some of our competitors."
"We requested that the F.T.C. correct the record to reflect the actual facts," she said. "It was only after another press cycle on the issue, some days after our request, that the FTC made the clarification."
The full email from Shelton is published below.
William Alden is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. Alden covers the technology industry.
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