Nobody's calling it a bribe, but Google donated $25,000 to honor the Federal Trade Commission chairman while the agency was embroiled in an investigation into the company's alleged anti-competitive practices. Last year, Google, along with companies like AOL and Comcast, gave the money to Common Sense Media for an award that recently went to the FTC's Jon Leibowitz for his work helping children. A few months later, the FTC closed its investigation and concluded that Google had not violated any antitrust laws. It was a big victory for the search giant and likely helped the company financially. In the words of The New York Times, "By allowing Google to continue to present search results that highlight its own services, the FTC decision could enable Google to further strengthen its already dominant position on the Internet."
This is just one of those things. Again, it would be disingenuous to read causation into the correlation between Google sending money in the FTC's money and the FTC letting Google off the hook. But either way, it doesn't look good. "It's a little bit odd that they're donating to Common Sense Media at the exact same time they're trying to influence Jon Leibowitz," Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told Bloomberg News. "It really looks terrible."
It wouldn't look as terrible if Google hand't showered money all over Washington during that same time period. Google spent some $25 million on lobbying in Washington at the time the investigation was going on and actually spent more as the case heated up. It was enough of an effort to lead The Atlantic Wire's own Rebecca Greenfield to wonder "Did Google Buy Its Way Out of Trouble with the Feds?" And while many will argue that investing in lobbying efforts is the status quo for big companies in Washington, even big companies from Silicon Valley, it's hard not to connect that kind of cash flow with the pretty positive result that Google got out of its run in with regulators. That's just how Washington works sometimes.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to "Google giving the FTC money" at one point. In fact, Google did not give the money directly to the FTC, but rather to Common Sense Media for an award to honor the FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz. "The Chairman had no idea that Google was one of the many corporate contributors to the event until he read the article," the FTC told The Atlantic Wire in a statement. "But he is grateful and honored to accept the award from Common Sense Media, which does so much for kids and families and privacy." We now refer to the incident as "Google sending money in the FTC's direction."