Google shuffles top policy team amid ongoing EU antitrust row

Google's staffing shakeup comes as the Alphabet Inc unit negotiates terms in the European Union in the aftermath of a record antitrust fine. PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO (BLOOMBERG) - Caroline Atkinson, an experienced diplomat Google hired last year to steer its global policy efforts, is stepping aside from that management role.

Google confirmed her move but said it was an administrative change designed to place oversight of the policy role at its Mountain View, California, headquarters, and Washington-based Atkinson will stay on as chief policy adviser. Leslie Miller, a Google policy director based in California, is filling in the top policy role on an interim basis. "Caroline will be focusing on external-facing work and priorities, and Leslie will manage the team," a Google spokesman said. Atkinson declined to comment.

The staffing shakeup comes as the Alphabet Inc unit negotiates terms in the European Union in the aftermath of a record antitrust fine and big technology companies face rising regulatory scrutiny in the US, including a renewed call for tougher competition enforcement.

Atkinson came to Google in March 2016 after long stints in government and economic policy roles. Before joining the internet search giant, Atkinson was an economic adviser to President Barack Obama, serving as his representative to the Group of Eight and G-20 global summits. She was part of a wave of Obama staff to move to technology firms as his second term came to an end. A number of people also left Google for Obama's White House while he was in office.

Under President Donald Trump, Google's standing in Washington has been less certain. It has come under pressure from conservative critics for its decision to fire an engineer who wrote a memo about Google's diversity hiring and political culture. On the left, Google and other tech behemoths are facing increased scrutiny for their outsized influence with internet users and advertisers.

Amy Klobuchar, the ranking Democrat on the Senate's antitrust subcommittee, introduced legislation intended to modernize antitrust enforcement last week. But Klobuchar's proposal wasn't co-sponsored by Republicans, who control the Senate and are unlikely to support tougher industry regulation.

Atkinson's tenure was distinguished primarily by the antitrust case in Europe. In June, the EU slapped Google with a record US$2.7 billion fine for abusing its market position to favor its shopping search service. Google is working to appease the agency's requests to avoid further penalties. The EU has other outstanding antitrust cases against the company. In April, Google settled an antitrust case in Russia, which forced the company to stop pre-installing its lucrative services on Android smartphones in that country.

Atkinson reports to Kent Walker, Google's general counsel, who has been influential in directing its policy responses. Susan Molinari, a former Republican Congresswoman, has led Google's government relations in Washington since 2012. Once Trump took office, Google and other tech companies sought to hire staff and lobbyists more aligned to the new administration. However, Google executives have also spoken out against several of Trump's initiatives, most notably on immigration and climate change.

In the wake of the EU ruling, some Google critics have called on US enforcement agencies to investigate the the company over its dominance in online search. Margrethe Vestager, the EU competition commissioner, said in a tweet on Monday that she had visited her counterparts at the US Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission. "Good, constructive cooperation," Vestager wrote.

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