Most of the witnesses at last month’s Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick were the types to be expected. On the pro side, Google’s counsel and a free-market think tank guy. On the con side, Microsoft’s counsel and a concerned privacy advocate. Then there was the outspoken Google detractor who happens to lead an organization funded by other Google detractors from the telecommunications industry.
How and why this critic was invited to testify has been fodder for speculation since the hearing, as have future plans of the Congress in investigating the proposed deal.
Scott Cleland, referred to across the Web by his opponents as a paid shill for the telcos, has a history of giving testimony at hearings on such seemingly disconnected topics as Enron, video competition, and the 1996 Telecom Act. The thread stitching together those topics and the Google deal, of course, is antitrust.
“I have been doing this for 15 years and really focused a lot on antitrust after the telecom act,” he told ClickZ News. “I understand basic economics and understand the dynamics of industry.”
Still, some wonder where Cleland’s allegiances truly lie. As the chairman of NetCompetition.org, a group whose members include AT&T, Comcast, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, and Verizon Wireless, Cleland has served as a mouth- and blog-piece for the telecom industry in its efforts to stifle the net neutrality movement. Google, a thorn in the side of the telcos in recent battles over wireless spectrum, has been a regular target of Cleland’s blog postings.
Because of his clear connections to powerful rivals of the increasingly-powerful Google, some question his interest in Google’s proposed acquisition or his ability to honestly assess its impact. They suggest his goal is simply to discredit Google in the broader broadband arena.
Officially, Cleland is president of tech industry research and consulting firm Precursor, and even refers to himself as “The Precursor,” noting, “I anticipate well.” Hence the superhero-like moniker.
Cleland, who also calls himself a “techcom analyst,” sees the Google and DoubleClick merger as symbolic of a greater confluence of technology and communications. “Why would I not think the Google/DoubleClick merger would be significant to work on?”
Indeed, he’s devoted what must be several hours to pondering the deal. In addition to a steady stream of blog posts on the subject, he’s penned more than one paper about it, including “Googleopoly: The Google-DoubleClick Anti-Competitive Case.” That one has its own dedicated Web site; there visitors are confronted with the imposing image of a tarantula, its beady red eyes bespectacled by the double-O’s in “Googleopoly.”
Cleland said he e-mailed one of his reports on the deal to “a ton of people” with antitrust-related affiliations, including Members of the U.S. House, Senate, Justice Department, and Federal Trade Commission, as well as people at industry groups, in the investment industry, and in the media.
He insisted he’s not just out to get Google. “I can be tough on all sorts of folks,” he said, alluding to the open letter to Microsoft honchos Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer he published on his Precursor Blog.
“No company has more to lose from a preemptive and activist regulatory approach like Net Neutrality than Microsoft,” he wrote in his cautionary missive against “Microsoft’s pro-regulation strategy in Washington.”
Considering his anti-net neutrality message and the non-threatening approach it takes to warning Microsoft, a vocal foe of Google’s DoubleClick buy, the letter might not come off as particularly tough on Microsoft.
Chairmen and ranking members of congressional committees and their staffers typically determine who is allowed to testify at congressional hearings. The goal is to find people with differing opinions and knowledge of the issues at hand. Cleland’s definite stance on the Google/DoubleClick deal, along with his history of giving testimony at industry-related hearings surely facilitated his invitation.
Whether the handful of Senators who participated at the hearing got anything out of it is debatable, but some say it wasn’t necessarily intended to serve as an interactive industry primer in the first place. “No substantive value is gained in these things,” said a longtime industry insider. “The Senators want to rattle the saber,” suggested the source, adding, “They’re also saying to the industry and the FTC, ‘We’re watching you.’ ”
If they decide to rattle those sabers some more, a meeting at a full committee level may be the way they do it. There’s also talk of additional hearings being held by the House, which might be perceived as more influential than the Senate subcommittee hearing, in part because there are so many more Members in House subcommittees.