FTC chairman talks privacy as agency pumps up Google probe

Commission hires lawyer to oversee Google investigation

As the chairman of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) talked openly about the importance of digital privacy this week, the commission moved to hire a high-profile outside attorney to oversee its antitrust investigation into Google.

The agency hired former federal prosecutor Beth A. Wilkinson to take over the probe. Wilkinson played a key role in convicting Timothy McVeigh of the Oklahoma City bombing.

A spokesman for the FTC said the commission had brought in outside attorneys before, the last time about four years ago. "We had a chance to get one of the best litigators in the country and we took that opportunity," the spokesman told the IDG News Service.

With Wilkinson on board for the Google probe, observers say the investigation has now moved into a higher gear.

"They're obviously taking this very seriously," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "Google is a very important company that dominates a major industry. Whatever happens, [the feds] want to make sure it's done right."

Even as the FTC was hiring Wilkinson, the chairman of the commission was making some strong statements about protecting private information online.

Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz told a group of reporters at the FTC's Western Region office in San Francisco on Thursday that people "care enormously" about their digital privacy, according to a Mashable report.

"I think they are very concerned because they have a sense that information is being captured, and they're not sure where it's going," Leibowitz said. "I don't think most of us understand how it's captured and transferred and monetized, but I think there is generally concern from consumers about that."

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research, said with Leibowitz making public comments about the need to protect private data, the commission needs to match its actions to his statements.

"So the FTC has made a public statement about digital data and they need to at least appear they are taking some action," he said.

Kerravala thinks people should expect the FTC to keep more of eye an on all things digital. "I think the government does need to get out in front of it," he added. "For many people, our lives are becoming more and more digital."

The FTC appears to be in the midst of a formal, wide-ranging antitrust investigation into whether Google has abused its Web dominance. The government is looking into the company's business practices and how much it might use its dominant position to muscle other players out of various markets.

A good part of the investigation focuses particularly on whether Google manipulated its search results so competitors and their products appear lower in search results.

There has been no word that the FTC has decided to bring an official case against Google. At this point, the agency still is considering the matter.

However, Gottheil said hiring a high-profile outside attorney is a big step forward.

"They're making sure there are not accusations of politics," he added. "Hiring someone with a reputation for being both tough and successful makes it easier to separate the current administration from whatever choice they make about actions. The most probable outcome is that they will demand some remedy, and it will be perceived by some as not tough enough. Having a highly reputed outside prosecutor makes their decision easier to defend."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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