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Despite a reputation as a free-marketeer and staunch opponent of government regulation, Sen. Mike Lee on Wednesday was sounding a lot more like his colleague Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) than like Milton Friedman.
The Utah Republican is a reliably conservative and libertarian voice in the Senate, which has made him a thorn in the side of his own leadership and a hero to conservatives and tea party activists. But when it comes to Google, at least, Lee has demonstrated far less ideological purity.
Utah is home to a number of large online retailers, including 1800contacts.com, which Lee represented while he was an attorney in private practice and which Lee's chief of staff, Spencer Stokes, represented while he was a lobbyist in Utah.
Those companies, which have had unrelated disputes with Google in the past, could be seriously hurt if Google is operating its search engine in such a way as to crowd out competitors to its retail businesses.
During a Wednesday Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights hearing on Google's business practices, Lee took Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt to task.
Lee, the ranking member on the subcommittee, raised a series of complaints about Google's practices, charging the company uses its Internet search market dominance to steer consumers to commercial sites it operates.
"Growing complaints that Google is using its search dominance to favor its own offerings at the expense of competition deserve serious attention, especially if consumers are misled by Google's self-rankings and preferential display. Such bias would deny user traffic and revenue to competing sites, depriving those sites of resources needed to develop more innovative content and offer better services to customers," Lee said in his opening statement.
"As a conservative Republican who favors free markets, I believe that ensuring robust competition in this critical area of our nation's economy will benefit consumers, spur innovation and lead to job creation. In this instance, I believe that preserving competitive markets through antitrust principles can help forestall the imposition of burdensome government regulation," Lee added.
During questioning, Lee was even harsher. At one point, Lee used a chart he said showed that while other price-comparison sites rated their products in varying degrees of affordability, Google's search ranking always showed Google's products in third place — a position Lee argued is the most "valuable real estate" on a webpage.
"You cooked it so you're always third," Lee said.
Schmidt, who disputed the basic assumptions Lee was making in comparing Google with other sites, rejected that statement. "I can assure you, we haven't cooked anything," Schmidt said.
A clearly unhappy Lee shot back that Google has "an unnatural attraction to the number three."