Google goes to Washington

April 27, 2012, 3:52 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Recent moves by both Google (GOOG) and the government seem to indicate that the search giant’s future might be determined in Washington as much as in Mountain View.

On Thursday, the Federal Trade Commission announced that it had hired a big legal gun for its investigation of Google on antitrust grounds, indicating that it is prepared to take the matter to court. Beth A. Wilkinson, formerly a Justice Department prosecutor, has been hired as an outside counsel, a move that calls to mind the government’s hiring of David Boies for its antitrust case against Microsoft (MSFT) more than a decade ago — the outcome of which, ironically, played a part in allowing companies like Google to thrive in succeeding years.

The case, which the New York Times says “has the potential to be the biggest showdown between regulators and Silicon Valley” since United States v. Microsoft, centers on whether Google manipulates its search results to favor its own services over those of competitors. Google dominates search, with 66% of the market, though that share has been slowly ebbing with the growth of Microsoft’s Bing.

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The FTC hasn’t formally decided whether it will take action against Google, but the hiring of such a high profile litigator is widely interpreted as being a big step in that direction. FTC Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch told the Wall Street Journal that Wilkinson “is somebody who is going to carry out the duties of a trial lawyer.”

Google, meanwhile, has stepped up its presence in Washington in a big way. This week, the company disclosed that had tripled its lobbying spending in its first quarter over the year-earlier period to more than $5 million. That sum approaches, and in some cases surpasses, the amounts spent by big telecom firms, and is much more than most Silicon Valley companies spend. Apple (AAPL), for example, spent just $500,000 and Facebook only $650,000.

The company last week announced that it had hired a big gun of its own, former Republican congresswoman Susan Molinari, to head its lobbying office in Washington. Antitrust is but one of a whole series of policy and regulatory issues affecting Google’s business. It is also under scrutiny on privacy matters and it will continue to lobby to protect its interests on copyright and a host of other issues.