Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal published a fairly in-depth critique of Google’s close ties with the White House, saying that the Internet giant had visited around 230 times since President Barack Obama had been in power, or roughly once a week. Today, Google responded to some of the allegations in the piece, taking the time to clarify some of the points as well as to deflect attention to other companies.
Taking issue with the figure of 230 appearances that the WSJ claims, Google senior vice president of communications and policy Rachel Whetstone says that 33 of the visits were by people not employed by Google at the time — so in other words, they weren’t representing Google. So that leaves 197 — and five of those were from a Google engineer who was helping to fix the Healthcare.gov website.
Elsewhere, the tech giant maintains that “a dozen” visits were for YouTube interviews with Obama following the State of the Union as well as taking photos for Google’s Art Project.
Having whittled its visit count down, Google says it consulted the White House records for other companies. It claims Microsoft made 270 visits over the same period, whereas Comcast made 150 visits — which is in stark contrast to the WSJ’s claims of just 20.
A long-standing beef
Google and News. Corp., the Rupert Murdoch-owned parent company of the Wall Street Journal, have a long, combative history, and this latest spat is just a continuation of it. The main beef in the WSJ’s report relates to meetings specifically in 2012, around the time Google faced an anti-trust investigation from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over allegedly favoring its own products in search results. The FTC ultimately voted to settle with Google in 2013.
The WSJ article from earlier this week was actually a follow-up to a more in-depth report from the week before, which argued that some members of the FTC had wanted to sue Google after identifying “real harm to consumers and to innovation.” The FTC has refuted this, however, saying:
“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.”
However, the WSJ is now pointing to a “flurry” of meetings around the same time this case was happening, suggesting that relationships were perhaps a little too cozy. “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,” it said, adding:
“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 cofounder 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.”
Google is adamant that its meetings were not to address the antitrust investigation, however, saying it discussed “everything but,” including patent reform, self-driving cars, mental health, Internet censorship, and cybersecurity.
Google also pointed to a handful of White House meeting in which other companies, including Microsoft, attended. It highlights this somewhat ironically as it was “the main complainant in the FTC’s antitrust investigation.” So Google is trying to turn this on its head — with the WSJ pointing an accusatory finger at it for its meetings at the White House, Google’s saying “actually, it’s not what it looks like, and what about those other companies?”