Google FTC Decision Inspires Lawmaker to Seek Probe Into News Leaks

The multiple news leaks that occurred during the Google FTC proceedings should not have happened, says U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa.

Google's recent antitrust skirmish with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is now coming under scrutiny by a congressman who is angry about media leaks that occurred during the proceedings.

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent a letter Jan. 3 to the FTC's investigator general, Scott Wilson, asking him to immediately probe the media leaks, which Issa argued could have influenced the case.

Google essentially received a hand slap from the FTC after a 19-month investigation into allegations that the company had been manipulating its search algorithms to favor Google's results over competitors. The FTC ruled that not enough evidence existed to prove such allegations. Instead, the company entered into a voluntary agreement with the FTC to change some of its business practices.

The problem, Issa stated in his letter to Wilson, is that multiple anonymous leaks to several news sources surfaced during the course of the probe. Such leaks are barred by law from occurring during FTC investigations until a decision is ultimately reached and announced by the agency.

"Throughout the process, nonpublic information about developments in the investigation has been inappropriately shared with the media," Issa wrote in his letter to Wilson. "It is believed that the commission may be contributing to, or is the source of, this information. This is of concern because such leaks are prohibited by law and counterproductive to the investigative process. To determine whether the commission, or its staff, has shared nonpublic information with the public or the press about the investigation of Google, I request the Office of Inspector General promptly investigate the matter."

Such leaks, Issa wrote, are prohibited by the FTC Act and the commission's own operating manual, which "preclude the commission and its staff from disclosing nonpublic information to the public and media. Moreover, information that may be disclosed must be 'for attribution and on the record,'" which was not done in the news reports about the case before a final decision was announced on Jan. 3. "Unfortunately, unnamed and anonymous sources have provided the media with nonpublic developments in the investigation of Google."

Other lawmakers had made similar comments, Issa wrote in his letter to Wilson.

"Indeed, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) recently wrote to [FTC] Chairman Jon Leibowitz raising concern that 'it has continually been the case' that 'confidential details of internal discussions' about the investigation of Google have been revealed to the media," wrote Issa. "In addition, U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) recently stated, 'FTC investigations and settlement negotiations have, unfortunately, become poorly kept secrets. And ... neither the commissioners nor the business subject to their jurisdiction can do their jobs well if their deliberations or investigations are manipulated or leaked for strategic advantage.'"

Now that the Google case has been decided by the FTC, Issa said he wants Wilson to find out just who made the leaks, which could have unfairly influenced the case.

"To discover the source of the leaks as well as the depth of nonpublic information disclosed, I request your office initiate an investigation as soon as possible," wrote Issa.