September 11, 2019
The FTC’s pittance of a settlement with Google over serious violations of children’s privacy laws came and went through the news cycle with little more than a shrug from the public last month. That’s understandable; folks following Silicon Valley’s relationship with Washington right now are singularly focused on the concurrent state and federal-level antitrust inquiries into the biggest four tech companies, Google included. Moreover, as I wrote in the American Prospect yesterday, Google shields itself particularly well from prying progressive eyes, thanks to a combination of think tank donations, overtures to Democratic elites, and just offering highly functional products whose creepy surveillance downsides are little understood by consumers.
But this is the Revolving Door Project, so we couldn’t let a corporate giveaway go by without looking at the personnel behind it. And as the aphorism, sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, goes: “history never repeats itself, but it often rhymes.”
Scroll down to the signatures at the bottom of the FTC consent order with Google. The first signature you’ll find from the defendants’ counsel belongs to Christopher Olsen, a lawyer at the BigLaw firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, and formerly, a higher-up at the FTC. He was the deputy director of the Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, and before that, an assistant director at the Division of Privacy and Identity Protection. We know because when Olsen started working at Wilson Sonsini back in 2015, the firm bragged about his deep FTC experience in the first paragraph of its press release.
Google’s in-house counsel took a trip through the revolving door as well. Kent Walker, the company’s senior vice president of global affairs and chief legal officer, signed the FTC consent order just below Olsen. The New York Times reported in 2017 that Walker was an assistant attorney at the Department of Justice before he left Washington for Silicon Valley (he came to Google from a job at eBay.)
This should all sound familiar. At the end of July, right after Facebook settled with the FTC over an inquiry into the Cambridge Analytica scandal, we pointed out in the Daily Beast that Facebook sought counsel from the BigLaw lawyer Sean Royall. He’s a former deputy director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, and like the Google counsel Olsen, he’s made a career out of leveraging this experience to win easy rides for corporate clients.
The Facebook settlement in July got a bit more press attention since it was related to Cambridge Analytica, the blow-out scandal which arguably kickstarted our current “techlash” moment. The FTC closed that case with a much-hyped $5 billion fine, but also no individual liability for the company’s executives. While the price tag might have sounded high, it was actually a drop in the bucket against Facebook’s staggering annual profits.
Likewise, this recent Google settlement is for a paltry $170 million — $4.8 billion less than even Facebook’s fine, while Google controls even more of the digital ad market.. Like the Facebook settlement, the FTC Commissioners split along party lines. Democrats Rohit Chopra and Rebecca Slaughter fiercely objected to the lack of accountability for YouTube’s leadership, and the effectively miniscule fee compared to the company’s margins.
But this is what happens when so many public servants revolve out to BigLaw gigs that it’s practically the expected playbook. Indeed, we learned yesterday that Andrew Finch, a major player in the Department of Justice’s antitrust division, is heading back to private practice to run his firm’s antitrust division. This is Finch’s second spin through the revolving door, after an earlier DOJ stint in the mid-2000’s. No word yet on if he’ll be representing any Big Tech companies, but clearly, opportunities aren’t scarce.
We also previewed some research to the Hill recently, which found that more than half of FTC antitrust lawyers who left the commission since 2014, and whose subsequent careers we could track down, went on to BigLaw or in-house counsel jobs at major corporations. It’s not just a few bad apples. It’s a whole culture of cashing in on public service.
This is why personnel matters, and it’s why anyone excited by the prospect of a world without Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple’s market dominance needs to look at the human beings carrying out these antitrust investigations. You can’t get to a less concentrated economy if corruption keeps clogging the system.