What is Behind the Journal’s Big Google-FTC Scoop?

Technology industry news scoops rarely offer as much intrigue as Wall Street Journal story “Inside the U.S. Antitrust Probe of Google“. According to reporters Brent Kendall, Brody Mullins, and Rolfe Winkler, the newspaper obtained a years-old Federal Trade Commission staff document, “after the agency inadvertently disclosed it as part of a Freedom of Information Act request”.

Seriously? Is that accidentally, or accidentally on purpose? Applying the question every journalist should ask about anything—Who benefits?—raises reasonable suspicion the release was deliberate. I say that because FTC staff recommended filing antitrust charges against Google, while Commissioners cleared the search and information in a unanimous vote, according to the Journal. The answer to the “Who benefits?” question likely lies in circumstances obvious and not: Intrigue in and around the agency, including staff dissatisfied with the outcome; timing with respect to Google; and competitor lobbying, manipulation, or interference. 

Why Is That?
Scoops like this one require real tact to report impartially. While on balance, the Journal reporters do good, other considerations offset the story’s seeming balance. In my trice reading, the scoop doesn’t explicitly state the newspaper obtained the document as part of a direct FOIA request but rather “viewed portions of the document” and that the “FTC declined to release the undisclosed pages and asked the Journal to return the document, which it declined to do”.

But nowhere do the reporters reveal whether the newspaper received the 160-page document directly from the government or from a third-party and in what way is it incomplete. The information is vital to putting important context to the story’s origins.

Yelp is mentioned four times, and there is pointed comment from the company’s vice president of public policy. As a journalist-reader, Yelp’s participation in the story waves a red flag. I see the Journal giving Yelp too much of a platform for gripe.

So I wonder: Is this Google competitor/partner also an original, background source in the story, even related to the leaked doc? The unredacted report came from somewhere. I sure want to know, and you should, too.

What a news story fails to reveal often is more important than what it does. Media leaks are common, and the Journal has a scoop of the kind editor’s can’t resist: Insinuation of government corruption, or at the least internal strife suggesting Google got off when the FTC should have slapped on the handcuffs. That makes understanding the document’s source all the more essential to discerning any hidden agendas, particularly someone’s or some organization’s influence.

The story has all the right other quotes, seemingly: Google, FTC, and the Obama Administration—and the latter surely must be mandatory for the newspaper’s legal department because the reporters allege:

An antitrust suit against Google would have pitted Obama administration appointees against one of the White House’s closest corporate allies. Google was the second-largest corporate source of campaign donations to President Barack Obama’s re-election effort. Google executives have visited the White House scores of times since Mr. Obama has been in office, according to visitor logs.

Yes, that is pointed insinuation bordering close to accusation of corruption.

Competition Corrects Course
But something essential is missing from this story, which, if reporting responsibly, the Journal must include in second-day stories: analysis from antitrust legal experts, particularly impartial academics. Their omission in the scoop slants the story’s vantage point against Google and for FTC bungling, if not misconduct or corruption.

Because: The staff-written document is years old, and the FTC officially found no cause for filing an antitrust complaint in 2013. As a reporter covering the tech sector, I see a search market that is more dynamic than when FTC staff recommended action and Commissioners voted against it. Facebook continues to make advertising gains; Mozilla gives up Google as Firefox search default, and Apple may soon do the same with Safari; Google ad revenues are increasingly challenged; and mobile search and advertising are still up for grabs, and not necessarily to Google.

This context demands analysis from experts familiar with antitrust law, who can interpret staff’s recommendation, Commissioners’ response to it, and what is the realistic market today compared to the Google business practices for which FTC staff recommended action.

Follow-up stories should skip the past, around which this first focuses way too much, and assess what is and could be. As a journalist who has covered complex antitrust and other legal cases and who reports on the tech sector, looks to me like the FTC wisely stayed its interfering hand. Microsoft’s antitrust mess with the Justice Department and state attorneys general shows that the tech market is dynamic and fast-changing enough to self-correct. Microsoft prosecution largely proved unnecessary. Competition corrected course: Look at the company’s crumbling dominance during this decade as example.

Apple risks being the dangerous monopoly during the next 5 years or so—much more than Google. Even then, competition can correct course faster than litigation.

Something else, which in my reading is not satisfactorily covered by the Journal: The FTC and DOJ seek to protect consumers from harm, rather than competitors. That would apply to Apple, Google, Microsoft or any dominant company being investigated.

Finally, I don’t see that the Journal provides the entire document for download. My apologies, if I missed it. While a scoop this may be, we live in a different news and reporting era. The posting of the document could generate valuable response, such as from legal experts, that would advance the reporting and benefit the public interest.

Editor’s Note: Wall Street Journal finally posted the full FTC report on March 24, 2015.