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FTC nominee says to recuse himself on Google issues for two years

By Diane Bartz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Republican law professor nominated to the Federal Trade Commission said on Tuesday he would recuse himself from the agency's investigations into Google for two years to avoid any possible conflicts of interest.

The FTC is investigating Google for allegedly breaking antitrust law, although the probe could well be done before Joshua Wright is confirmed to the commission.

Wright has served as director of research at the International Center for Law and Economics, a group that received funding from Google. In academic papers he has questioned the merits of bringing an antitrust case against the Web search giant.

"Google, I will recuse myself for a minimum of two years," Wright, a professor at George Mason University, told the Senate in a confirmation hearing before the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

The committee is expected to vote next week on whether to send Wright's nomination and others to the full Senate for confirmation.

Wright faced withering questions from Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, who pressed him on articles he had written criticizing efforts to rein in banks accused of abusive lending, which led to the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

She also asked about Wright's criticism of the FTC itself, citing comments that she said "seem to indicate that you doubt the FTC's mission."

"You have written some things that give me pause," Boxer added.

Wright sought to allay her concerns, saying that the criticisms were not aimed at the current CFPB but an earlier, proposed iteration. He also said he strongly believed in the fundamental FTC mission of protecting consumers.

Wright was also asked about the FTC's role in ensuring fairness in the gasoline market.

Boxer made reference to a gasoline price spike earlier this year and widespread suspicion that it was not caused by normal market forces but by price manipulation.

Wright responded that he would look into what investigations the FTC had underway on gas prices. Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell tweeted minutes after the hearing ended that "won't support @FTC nominee who doesn't help implement anti-manipulation law."

Senators also questioned Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat and the daughter of South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn. She has been nominated for a second term at the FCC, which regulates telecommunications. She joined the commission in 2009.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, pressed Clyburn on efforts to get better mobile service for rural areas. "I am really pleading for the entire commission to look at this again," she said.

Clyburn responded that the issue was on the FCC's agenda. "I assure you that the FCC is currently conducting investigations. Our enforcement bureau is doing that," she said.

The FCC, which along with the Justice Department stopped AT&T's merger with T-Mobile USA last year, has at least two hot-button issues on its plate.

It is organizing an auction of spectrum now owned by broadcasters in hopes that it will ease wireless carriers' spectrum crunch. And it is seeking to require Dish Network Corp to use lower power in a spectrum band to prevent its signal from bleeding into adjacent spectrum.

Wright has been a research director at the International Center for Law & Economics, which has accepted funding from Google.

If confirmed by the Senate, Wright will replace Republican Thomas Rosch on the agency's five-member commission. Rosch's term has ended.

(Reporting By Diane Bartz; Editing by Ros Krasny, Andrea Ricci and Andrew Hay)

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