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Google Backs Down; Eric Schmidt Will Testify Before Congress

Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt will testify before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee in September, a company spokesperson confirmed on Friday. It’s a reversal for Google (NSDQ: GOOG), which had previously declined to make Schmidt or CEO Larry Page available to the panel of lawmakers probing the search giant’s market power.

Last month, Sen. Herb Kohl, the Wisconsin Democrat who chairs the antitrust subcommittee, and Sen. Mike Lee, the Utah Republican and ranking member, sent a letter to Google requesting that either Page or Schmidt testify at a hearing on “competition issues pertaining to internet search.” The lawmakers wrote that the hearing would be “incomplete without the direct perspective and views from one of Google’s top two executives.”

Google had offered to send its chief legal officer, David Drummond, instead. But Kohl and Lee insisted, adding somewhat menacingly that the subcommittee “would very much prefer to work this out by agreement rather than needing to resort to more formal procedures,” a thinly veiled subpoena threat.

Speaking to Reuters (NYSE: TRI) and other reporters at this week’s Allen and Co. mogul retreat in Sun Valley, Schmidt pledged that Google would cooperate fully with “antitrust regulators” investigating the company. Last month, the Federal Trade Commission launched a wide-ranging investigation into Google’s dominance of the web search business. At the time, Google responded by saying it would cooperate fully.

But the company resisted making Page or Schmidt available to the Judiciary committee. Sen. Kohl had been planning hearings on Google’s market power well before news of the FTC probe emerged. It’s unclear what prompted Google’s turnabout, but it’s likely neither Page nor Schmidt was enamored with the idea of being subpoenaed by a Congressional committee. Under the circumstances, Schmidt is the best choice to testify, given that his new responsibilities as executive chairman include “government outreach,” and he is a more polished public speaker than Page.

“Senators Kohl and Lee expressed a strong desire to have our executive chairman appear in front of the subcommittee and we’re happy to accommodate them,” a Google spokesperson told paidContent. “We appreciate their willingness to work with us to make it happen this fall.”

Lee, the subcommittee’s ranking member, issued a statement saying he was “pleased that Mr. Schmidt has agreed to testify at the Antitrust Subcommittee hearing. I look forward to discussing a number of important issues relating to Google and internet search competition.”