The Federal Trade Commission is reportedly on the verge of serving Google with subpoenas as part of a broad anti-trust investigation into Google’s primary money-maker: its search engine business. For months, the FTC’s lawyers have been gathering intel about the way Google ranks search results and related advertising to determine whether it amounts to anti-competitive behavior.
Meanwhile, Senators Michael Lee (R-Utah) and Herb Kohl (D-Wisc) have said they’re “very disappointed” to hear that Google has ignored Congress’ request to have Larry Page or former CEO Eric Schmidt testify at a hearing on competition in search and send their chief legal officer instead. Here’s why we think Google should reconsider, and send Mr. Schmidt to Washington.
1. The Best Offense Is a Good Defense
It was hard not to notice the timing yesterday when word leaked out about the possibility that the FTC would hit Google with subpoenas the day after Senator Kohl, chairman of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, and Lee, the committee’s ranking Republican, issued a statement saying, “We would very much prefer to work this out by agreement rather than needing to resort to more formal procedures.” Senate subcomittees can use subpoenas to compel witnesses to testify, which means if Google doesn’t offer up Mr. Page or Mr. Schmidt, it could be facing subpoenas from both the FTC and the Senate. We have a feeling the splashy headlines fed to the press by sources “familiar with the matter”–and what it did to Google’s stock price–were designed to compel Mr. Schmidt or Mr. Page to click “buy” on that ticket to D.C.
Sure there’s a chance of a damning soundbite could emerge, especially when a top-level executive has to explain why a crappy service like Google Places always makes it to the top of your search results. But there’s also a chance for Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Page to sow the seeds of that “this is all Microsoft’s evil plan” conspiracy theory they keep trying to sell.
2. Don’t Put the Asperger-y Dude in Front of the Microphone
Assuming Google opts to take the Senate up on its threat, it should clearly be Mr. Schmidt and not Mr. Page that sits across from the panel. The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, author of Googled: The End of the World As We Know It, explained it best back in January when Mr. Page reclaimed his throne:
It was always assumed that one day Page would be C.E.O. Now that he is about to be, he will have to change. He is a very private man, who often in meetings looks down at his hand-held Android device, who is not a comfortable public speaker, who hates to have a regimented schedule, who thinks it is an inefficient use of his time to invest too much of it in meetings with journalists or analysts or governments. As C.E.O., the private man will have to become more public. And he will have to rid himself of a proclivity most engineers have: they are really bad at things they can’t measure. Like fears about Google’s size, and privacy and copyright and how to deal with governments that are weak at measurement but rife with paranoia.
3. Schmidt Knows the Drill
The FTC’s probe may be the most serious legal threat to Google in the past 12 years, with “the potential to reshape how companies compete on the Internet” but it’s hardly the first time Google’s found itself in antitrust hot water. In the past twelve years, Google has faced 13 antitrust investigations around the world. Mr. Schmidt was CEO for nine of them and as Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan says, Google “mostly [came] through OK.”
4. Let the Stigma Hit Schmidt on His Way Out the Door
The FTC’s probe is giving policy wonks a serious case of deja-vu for the Justice Department’s landmark lawsuit against Microsoft in the 1990s over Windows’ dominance. The long-running case both tarnished Micorsoft’s public image and is thought to have been the reason Bill Gates stepped down as CEO. If the Senate and FTC are going to make Google in the new corporate villain, better it be Mr. Schmidt, now executive chairman and removed from day-to-day operations, than the new head honcho Mr. Page. Besides, Mr. Schmidt, a one-man Orwellian quote machine, has the flair to play the role.
5. Consider It an Audition Tape
Earlier this year, Page Six reported that Mr. Schmidt was working with CNN’s Liza McGuirk, the executive producer of Parker Spitzer, on a talk show. What better way to drum up interest from the network that bestowed hosting duties on one of the country’s most famous Johns than with some time in a Congressional hot seat?