Why Tim Wu's Advising the FTC is Bad for Google

Columbia professor Tim Wu us joining the FTC next week in an advisory capacity. The Wu move is bully for the FTC, bad for Google, which is trying to steer clear of anticompetitive and other entanglements.

For Google, something just went rotten in the state of the Federal Trade Commission.

The Wall Street Journal said Tim Wu, a well-regarded Columbia University professor known for coining the term "network neutrality," is joining the FTC as a "senior advisor" in the agency's Office of Policy Planning beginning Feb. 14.

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That's Valentine's Day, but there should be no feeling of amore for Google about this move.

Here's why: Wu last November published The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, a book that chronicles how the Internet is consolidating from many networks to the networks of a powerful few, including Facebook, Apple and, of course, Google.

I haven't read the Master Switch, though I did note Booklist reviewer David Siegfried said on Amazon that Wu wrote that Apple tries to "control the user experience with slick products while Google endeavors to democratize content, giving the user choice and openness.

Even so, Wu is hardly a Google cheerleader despite working there as an unpaid fellow in 2008, according to the Journal:

"Discussing his book at Google's Washington offices in November, Mr. Wu said the search giant was close to a tipping point in which, he argues, "information empires" move from being benign monopolies to being anticompetitive impediments to innovation."
""I don't think anyone can deny that Google has a monopoly over the search-engine market," he said, sitting on stage next to a Google executive on the day that the European Union launched an antitrust inquiry into the company. "It is reminiscent in my mind of AT&T in the 1920s.""

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said Wu will be working on issues at the "nexus of consumer protection, competition, law and technology."

This includes Wu advising Leibowitz and his team on antitrust and privacy issues at a time when Google rivals such as Microsoft,and consumer and privacy advocates are clamoring for crackdowns that regulate the company's growing power.

Anyone want to raise their hand and explain to me how this is good for Google, at all?

What Wu will do is cut through any confusion and wrangling the FTC has exhibited with regard to Google's competitive positioning in the market, as well as the privacy issues that chase the company after last February's Google Buzz debacle and the Google Street View WiSpy privacy imbroglio that started last May and hasn't really been resolved.

The FTC rather weakly looked into the Buzz issue and punted the WiSpy issue to the Federal Communications Commission (where it will get punted away again).

The FTC has been loath to come down on Google because it is a powerful company, and the government agency lacks the chops to navigate through the complex intersection of tech and law.

Wu will provide the answers and, well, they may not be pretty for Google, Facebook, Apple and others with a lot of power online. It's quite possible the FTC under his advice will become more strict and exacting in what it requires of Google.

Take for example that search competition snafu in Europe, where smaller rivals are claiming Google pushes their results down on Google.com in favor of its own Web services.

Given how Wu characterized Google as having a search monopoly, I can see Wu getting the FTC to listen to Gary Reback and give Google the full-court press in front of Congress.

One good thing for the FTC here: Wu's clear thinking would also help the FTC avoid such PR disasters as last year's AdMob investigation, when the agency polled mobile ad companies and industry analysts to find out whether Google's buying AdMob would help or hurt competition.

The FTC ultimately blessed the deal and Google is racking up mobile ad dollars at an unprecedented rate, partly thanks to AdMob, but mostly because mobile data generation and consumption is booming.

Anyway, this Wu move is bully for the FTC, but bad for Google, which is trying to steer clear of anticompetitive and other entanglements that put it in Microsoft's bad company as a monopolist.