An odd thing happened in Washington this week. A dozen Republicans demanded a public hearing into Google's proposed $3.1 billion acquisition of DoubleClick because, they claim, "the privacy implications of such a merger are enormous."
This demand came in a letter from those politicians (PDF), including Rep. Dennis Hastert, to their Democratic counterparts, who now have the power to decide whether to haul Google in for questioning.
What's odd is that these are the same Republicans who have spent their political careers extolling the virtues of mergers when telecommunications giants are vying to acquire one another. To say these Republicans like telecommunications mergers is an understatement akin to saying the U.S. occupation of Iraq may have encountered some setbacks over the past few years.
Let's look at the record of Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who climbed on the anti-Google bandwagon with a simultaneous press release saying, "I wonder if the intentional collection and coordination of all that personal data about us is such a good idea."
This is the same Joe Barton who, as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, presided over a March 2005 hearing in which he championed the mergers of Sprint and Nextel, AT&T and SBC, and Verizon and MCI--all in one breath. The following year, Barton put the squeeze on the FCC to approve the $86 billion AT&T-BellSouth merger, saying: "The commission has a responsibility to act expeditiously on the AT&T-BellSouth application so that consumers will have an opportunity to reap the benefits."
It worked. The FCC approved the merger two months later.
Barton is hardly alone in this bit of political flip-flopping. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, signed this week's letter complaining about the Google-DoubleClick merger. Upton is the same fellow who lauded mega telecommunications mergers by saying, "these mergers are not only logical, but they are integral to ensuring a vibrant and intermodally competitive communications marketplace."
Like many of these Republicans, Barton is paid most handsomely in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry (he supports taxpayers subsidizing the creation of new refineries for petrochemical companies). But telecommunications companies and their employees are up there as well, writing him checks for more than $1 million over the years.
That's the first reason some Republicans in Congress dislike Google, or at least are willing to publicly savage it: The search company has been fighting against AT&T, Verizon Communications, and Comcast over Net neutrality regulations for the last few years. Now that the Federal Trade Commission is reviewing the Google-DoubleClick deal, it's time for some payback.
The second reason is more speculative but worth noting. And it's that Republicans know that Google is run by Democrats.
It's true. Chief Executive Eric Schmidt has written checks for $163,000 to Democratic campaign committees. Google board member John Doerr has given more than $507,000 to Democratic committees (and that's not even counting individual politicians). Google board member Ram Shriram gave to only one presidential candidate this year: Barack Obama. Google board member Shirley Tilghman gave money only to Democratic causes, including Emily's List. And so on.
An article I wrote earlier this year looked at contributions to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney. Only one Googler (and one in Chicago, at that) gave money to either of the Republican candidates.
Google's policy staff reflects this partisan split. Andrew McLaughlin, Google's director of global public policy and government affairs, was once a House Democratic aide. So was Johanna Shelton, a Google policy counsel. Google's Washington spokesman was Sen. Joe Lieberman's press secretary. Alan Davidson, Google's senior policy counsel, worked in the White House Office of Policy Development in the Clinton administration. John Burchett, Google's state policy counsel, was chief of staff to Jennifer Granholm, the Democratic governor of Michigan. (The lone exception is Pablo Chavez, a Google policy counsel, who worked for Sen. John McCain. And Google's outside lobbyists are more evenly split between the major political parties.)
This shouldn't matter. But politicians are petty and parochial. So it probably does.
For its part, all Google would say on the record was: "Google has taken a number of industry-leading steps to improve privacy for our users, and the success of the DoubleClick acquisition depends on our retaining our users' trust. FTC Commissioner Jon Liebowitz said last week that online-privacy concerns 'really do transcend any particular acquisition,' and we think that Congress would be best served by taking an industrywide look at the issue."
Fat chance. It's about as likely as Barton and the other Republicans living up to their party's official platform (PDF), which says "government should be...market-based, actively promoting rather than stifling innovation."
It's a bizarre world when the Democrats--House aides have signaled that a hearing is unlikely this year--are starting to sound like the voice of reason when it comes to an enlightened, pro-competition antitrust policy.
CNET News.com's Anne Broache contributed to this report.