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FTC Nominee Quizzed on Past Work, Will Recuse Himself From Google Case

December 4, 2012

A Republican nominee to the Federal Trade Commission who has written articles and conducted research funded indirectly by Google and other corporate interests pledged on Tuesday to recuse himself from matters involving the Internet firm for at least two years.

Joshua Wright, an economist and law professor at George Mason University, has indicated in some of his written work that any antitrust case against Google should face very high hurdles, including demonstrable harm to consumers and not merely to Google’s business rivals.

The FTC is currently investigating whether Google has violated antitrust laws by favoring its own products in its search rankings.

“I will recuse myself at a minimum for two years under the president’s ethics pledge,” Wright said during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee in response to questions from Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. The White House nominated him earlier this year to succeed retiring Commissioner Thomas Rosch. He also pledged to consult with FTC ethics officials after that two-year period is up on whether to recuse himself from any future cases.

But Cantwell was not satisfied with this answer, noting that the FTC can work at a “glacial” pace and cases that are before the commission today may not be resolved in two years. She said she did not want to “leave it up to trust” that Wright would recuse himself from such cases.

Wright noted that only a handful of cases would likely be affected by his past work and stuck to his two-year pledge.

Boxer called on Wright to submit a list of the cases that he may have to recuse himself from because of financial support he possibly received from companies that may have business before the FTC. “We need to know if we are looking at someone who is going to be able to participate,” Boxer said.

She also pressed Wright to respond to some of his past criticism of the FTC and questioned why he would want to serve an agency that he has said has been “hampered by a history and pattern of appointments evidenced by a systematic failure to meet expectations.”

Wright said this criticism stemmed from the FTC’s use of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act in antitrust cases and did not reflect his view of the agency itself. He repeatedly pledged support for the FTC’s mission of protecting consumers and protecting competition.

In his written statement, Commerce panel Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who did not attend the hearing, voiced concern that Wright may be too quick to favor free-market approaches to consumer-protection issues.

“In his academic writing--some of which has been funded by groups with a clear antiregulatory agenda--Mr. Wright makes it very clear that he believes that market forces can solve almost any consumer-protection problem. While it is easy to espouse ideas like this from the academic ivory tower, serving as an FTC commissioner is a very different job,” Rockefeller said. “As a commissioner, his job will be to enforce the law as it is written, not as he theorizes it should be.”

Consumer Watchdog, a longtime critic of Google, called on the committee to reject Wright’s nomination. The group noted that Wright is director of research at the International Center for Law and Economics, which has received funding from Google.

“Wright has repeatedly advocated against laws and regulations that protect consumers and has argued against strong antitrust enforcement," Consumer Watchdog’s John Simpson said in a letter to the committee. “Worse, he has a record of support for, and financial ties to, Google, whose activities are one of the major ongoing issues confronting the commission.”

Rockefeller said he is hopeful the committee can vote on Wright’s nomination and FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn’s renomination to the commission next week. Clyburn also appeared before the committee on Tuesday, but her renomination to the agency does not appear to face much resistance.

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