The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee Thursday questioned the Obama administration's nominee to head the Justice Department's antitrust division whether he would continue to monitor Google's activities to ensure it doesn't abuse its dominance in the Internet search market.
During a hearing to consider the nomination of Bill Baer to be chief of the Antitrust Division, Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., noted the panel's concerns about whether Google is using its dominant position in Internet search to favor its own products and services. The Federal Trade Commission is currently investigating such allegations against Google.
"I recognize the FTC is investigating the search bias issue but Justice has and will likely continue to scrutinize many issues affecting Google. With this in mind, how will you continue to scrutinize allegations of anti-competitive behavior by Google in the Internet sector in the future and do you believe it has the capability to gain a stranglehold over this market," Kohl quizzed Baer.
Baer did not directly answer the question. Instead, he said any dominant player requires close scrutiny from antitrust regulators. "Being vigilant whether its Microsoft or Alcoa Aluminum about firms that are successful, and we don't want to penalize success but to make sure it's not improperly translated into unfair advantage in other markets, is really a key part of what antitrust is all about," he said.
Baer was nominated in February to become assistant attorney general for antitrust after the departure last year of Christine Varney from the post. He is currently a partner at Arnold & Porter and runs the law firm's antitrust practice. He also served as director of the FTC's Competition Bureau in the Clinton administration. Some current and former FTC officials attended his confirmation hearing including FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz.
Baer also was asked about the claim made by some antitrust experts that current antitrust laws are not adequate to keep up with the fast-paced high tech sector. He said he did not agree with such a view.
"The challenge is understanding what's going on and being able to ask the right questions" and determine whether consumers are being harmed, he said.
Kohl also asked Bear about consolidation in the telecommunication industry and how he would evaluate marketing agreements between competitors. Justice is currently evaluating such a transaction between Verizon Wireless and a group of cable companies. Kohl has expressed strong concerns with the marketing agreements between Verizon and the cable firms and a related deal to sell spectrum owned by the cable providers to Verizon.
"In evaluating marketing agreements in any sector, there are two sides to the coin. One is what are the pro-competitive, efficiency-oriented justifications and do those really stand up to scrutiny," Baer said. "On the other hand, what is the risk there will be less competition, more coordination and a less effective marketplace going forward."
The committee has not scheduled a vote on Baer's nomination but is unlikely to take it up before the Senate leaves for its August break.