From Google Payroll to Government and Back Again

Joshua Wright, whose term as a Republican commissioner at the FTC ended in August, has joined the antitrust practice of the law firm that represented Google before the FTC.

A revolving door at the Bear Stearns headquarters in New York outside the offices of global investment bank, securities trading and brokerage firm Bear, Stearns & Co. on Madison Ave on March 17, 2008 in New York. JP Morgan Chase bought Bear, Stearns & Co, for 2 USD a share, with help of 30,000 billion USD in financing of Bear, Stearns assets from the US Federal Reserve.AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
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Joshua Wright, whose term as a Republican commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission ended in August, has joined the antitrust practice of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati — the law firm that represented Google before the FTC.

Being on Google’s payroll is nothing new for Wright. Before he joined the FTC, Google helped fund his academic research at George Mason University, where he will continue to teach while working for Wilson Sonsini. George Mason received $762,000 in donations directly from Google from 2011 to 2013.

WASHINGTON - MAY 26:  Professor at George Mason University School of Law Joshua Wright listens during a hearing before the Intellectual Property, Competition and the Internet Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee that gathered to examine if  the proposed merger between AT&T and T-Mobile may affect wireless telecommunications competition, May 26, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The merger, if approved by the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice, would limit coverage options to just three national carriers: AT&T, Sprint and Verizon. Although such a merger proposes better coverage and fewer dropped calls, it will possibly suggest higher-priced plans and may lead to possible job eliminations. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Joshua Wright

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From 2009 to 2011, Wright authored or co-authored at least four publicly available papers supporting Google’s position on antitrust and patent questions. The papers discounted the idea that Google could face federal enforcement for favoring its own sites in search engine requests and restricting advertisers from running ads on competitors. One is literally called “The Case Against the Antitrust Case Against Google.”

Wright wrote in these papers that Google’s bias toward its own products in search could be evidence of “intense competition,” and that the uncertainty behind Google’s conduct “counsels caution, not aggression.” In three of the papers, he and his co-author disclosed financial support from Google; in one they did not.

Google habitually uses academia as a third-party validator to mold elite opinion. It has funded dozens of academic studies over the past several years, and worked closely to sponsor and even suggest speakers and invitees for conferences related to its core issues.

But ties between Wright and Google go so deep that Wright had to agree to recuse himself from working on Google cases at the FTC in order to hush conflict of interest concerns and get confirmed by the Senate. That confirmation went through in January 2013, just after the FTC overrode its own staff recommendations and decided against filing antitrust charges against Google.

After the recusal period ended, however, Wright appeared to subtweet Google critics last June, asking, “Would anyone find it relevant to an antitrust claim against Burger King if a survey showed consumers love when you replace Burger King fries with McDonald’s?”

This referred obliquely to a research paper written by Tim Wu demonstrating consumer harm from Google prioritizing its own products in search results. Yelp, a rival to Google, paid for that study.

Emails released last spring show Google’s influence over the FTC, with lobbyists asking for — and receiving — public statements from the federal agency that would help Google deal with negative press accounts.

Wright left the FTC in August 2015, returning to George Mason. Just five months later, he had a new position as “of counsel” at Wilson Sonsini, Google’s primary outside law firm.

Google is under renewed scrutiny from the FTC over prioritizing its own services in its Android mobile devices. Wright will need to refrain from working on FTC-related matters until this August, under the standard one-year “cooling-off” period.

Politico Pro first reported the news of Wright’s hiring.

Top photo: A revolving door.

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