Levinson quits Google's board, stays with Apple, amid FTC scrutiny

With the on-again/off-again relationship between the US Federal Trade Commission and antitrust enforcement clearly coming on again with the rise of the Obama Administration -- and the appointment of former FTC Commissioner Christine Varney at DOJ Antitrust -- it may no longer be acceptable among technology company directors to leverage their status with one company to influence another. Genentech Chairman Arthur Levinson's involvement as a lead director with both Google and Apple had never raised eyebrows until this year, when newly appointed regulators sought to eliminate the perception of possible collusion between technology companies.

That perception might have been obvious with regard to Eric Schmidt, the Google CEO who left Apple's board of directors last August. But for the career genetic scientist and molecular biologist whose company produced neither MP3 players nor search engines, his involvement was at one time seen as a way of sharing his life experience with multiple companies that could become partners.

In the modern realm of technology, appearances are often worse than the real thing. This morning, Levinson stepped down from his directorship post at Google, in an amicable parting that just last week Schmidt, in an interview with Reuters, pleaded was unnecessary, given Levinson's particular realm of expertise.

An FTC investigation into the relationship between the two companies was ongoing up until today. Though it has not officially called off the investigation, FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz issued this statement today: "Google, Apple, and Mr. Levinson should be commended for recognizing that overlapping board members between competing companies raise serious antitrust issues and for their willingness to resolve our concerns without the need for litigation."

Apple and Google had actually not overlapped much until last year, when the latter company entered the Web browser wars with a very competitive entry, Chrome. Later, Google announced its intention to build that software into an operating system, at first primarily for netbooks; presently, Apple does not produce a netbook, and has professed skepticism at the validity of the form factor.

While some analysts were saying Levinson's exit from Google just about wraps it up for the ties that appear to bind, they evidently had forgotten about one more prominent advisor who continues to have ties to both: Former US Vice President Al Gore has served on Apple's board of directors since March 2003, and helped guide that company through its accounting scandal, which many have already forgotten. Since before joining Apple, Mr. Gore has also been a senior advisor to Google.

Mr. Gore has leveraged his position at Google to help drive some pro-active policy efforts, including The Climate Project. Launched just two weeks ago, the site contains tools based on the Google Earth platform to help individuals study the effects of global climate change, and Google has certainly supplied the former presidential candidate with more help than just the platform.

It is the extreme right wing which has used the tool of guilt-by-association to draw an extremely elastic perimeter around Mr. Gore, Google, the "climate change underground," the "net neutrality movement" (whose founding principle, ironically, was created in an effort to prevent Google from buying premium bandwidth), and political action group MoveOn.org co-founded by Mr. Gore. Recent ultra-conservative blogs point to the fact that Mr. Gore mentioned the SavetheInternet Coalition in a 2007 book, as an indicator that he is actually that project's "ringleader."

Some believe that Gore is leveraging this alleged "ringleader" role in an effort to spearhead the notion, advanced only by scientists who refuse to wear their political affiliations on their sleeves and who point to only sporadic evidence of tsunamis, that global climate change is somehow real.

Writes conservative commentator Scott Cleland, "Where are the disclosures in the book that most all of Mr. Gore's multi-ten million dollar net worth is in Google shares -- constituting a huge undisclosed conflict of interest on the issue of net neutrality?"

Arthur Levinson was typically never mentioned by conservative bloggers.

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