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Antitrust

Federal Trade Commissioners Disagree About Role of Antitrust Lawsuits Against Big Tech

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FTC Commissioner Christine Wilson

October 20, 2020 — In the midst of the largest lawsuit against a tech giant in decades, Google, the Technology Policy Institute hosted a conversation with two current and two former Federal Trade Commissioners discussing the state of antitrust in the United States. The Tuesday event aired as part of TPI Aspen 2020, a week-long conference investigating the pressing communications technology issues of today.

They agreed the country is currently seeing an antitrust revival like never before. The Justice Department antitrust division on Tuesday accused search engine giant Google of using its market dominance to disadvantage the competition.

Further, the lawsuit came shortly after the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee’s report into the allegedly anti-competitive practices of Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. The report proposed an array of changes to reign in the power of big tech companies, including barring them from acquiring future startups and banning them from both owning marketplaces and selling competing products.

The commissioners disagreed on whether structural conditions of the market, the subject of course of existing federal law, including antitrust law, are to blame for fostering technology companies’ massive growth.

FTC Commissioner Christine Wilson argued that systemic issues, possibly causing high concentration and high barriers to entry in the marketplace, should not be seen as an enemy to consumers.

“Heavy regulation stifles innovation and raises costs for consumers,” said Wilson, adding that the FTC “should not be in the business of determining what arenas” a company is able to operate in, precisely what the House report called for.

Wilson claimed that free markets with light touch regulation incentivize competition and that “structurally limiting the number of heads that can operate in a given industry” would serve to reduce innovation.

The House “report doesn’t make any claim that they have seen systematic failures,” noted Josh Wright, law professor and executive director of the Global Antitrust Institute at George Mason University law school.

“Many did not see any systematic issues in how the DOJ and the FTC approach mergers,” said Edith Ramirez, co-head of antitrust and competition in privacy and cybersecurity at Hogan Lovells, and former FTC Chair under President Barack Obama.

Yet, Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter argued the opposite, saying that failing to address the structural issues causing concentration in the market will result in long-term implications for the U.S. economy.

“Cost isn’t the only thing that is important,” said Slaughter, saying new legislation is needed to create more opportunity for innovation.

Wright said he was unsure of whether current or future administration will be up to the task of drastically altering antitrust law.

“Legislation is hard and a lot of the tools we have are limited,” said Slaughter, urging the FTC to do everything in its power.

One thing the commissioners agreed on is that the FTC lacks critical resources. Echoing the House report, the panelists called for Congress to strengthen the FTC by increasing the agency’s budget.

“We live in a world of finite resources and the FTC’s budget is shrinking not growing,” said Wilson.

“Christine’s point about resources is true. Since, 2010 there has been an 80 percent increase in merger filings,” said Slaughter. “We’re having to review twice as many mergers without any additional resources, which effects how thorough we can be.”

Antitrust

Key Republican: Anticompetitive Practices of Big Tech Present a Threat to Innovation

Rep. Ken Buck said tech companies’ practices are anticompetitive and threaten innovation, free speech and national security.

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Screenshot of Rep. Ken Buck from the Heritage Foundation webcast

WASHINGTON, January 13, 2023 — Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., argued on Wednesday that the anticompetitive practices of large tech companies present a threat to innovation, free speech and national security — and that even Republicans who are traditionally wary of antitrust legislation should view it as a key tool for curbing Big Tech’s power.

“I’m a free market person — I apply that principle to just about everywhere — but if you don’t have a market, you can’t have a free market,” Buck said at a Heritage Foundation event. “And when Google controls 94 percent of the online searches in this country, you don’t have a free market.”

Buck said that it was the responsibility of Congress to actively shape antitrust law, rather than “leaving it up to the courts to create something over the next 30 years.”

Among the several anti-Big Tech bills that have been proposed, Buck highlighted as his priority legislation that would prevent certain companies from acting as both buyers and sellers in digital advertising markets.

The bill applies to companies that generate more than $20 billion in digital ad revenues — specifically targeting Google and Facebook — and has so far received bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate.

Tech companies have spent millions of dollars lobbying against proposed antitrust bills, making it politically precarious for some members of Congress to support them, Buck said. Still, he urged his colleagues to consider the harms allegedly caused by social media platforms.

“We know that Instagram recognized that there was body shaming going on, there was depression among teenage girls, there was a higher suicide rate among teenage girls, and they doubled down,” Buck said. “They didn’t just say, ‘We’ve got to deal with this issue’ — they decided they were going to start marketing to a younger group.”

More competition in the market could give teens and parents access to better alternatives, Buck said, but the power held by the largest platforms makes it nearly impossible for competitors to emerge.

Rep. Buck linked free speech issues for tech industry to antitrust

“How do you have free speech, how do you have competition in the marketplace when you’ve got four companies that are so big that they can wipe out any kind of competitor?” he asked.

Buck has long been a critic of Big Tech, and introduced legislation to ban the TikTok app from U.S. government devices more than a year before similar legislation was passed as part of the bipartisan spending bill in December. This decision had nothing to do with fear of TikTok as a competitor to U.S. companies, he said.

“TikTok is dangerous, not because of its competition in the marketplace — I think it’s healthy in that sense; if Microsoft or some company had bought it, I’d be all in favor of that kind of competition for Facebook — but the bottom line is [that] how it’s being used by an adversary is dangerous and concerning.”

Although the TikTok ban won broad Republican support, alongside a variety of proposals to target tech companies’ privacy or content moderation practices, many antitrust bills have been less popular.

Buck has been open about his struggles in convincing other Republicans to pursue antitrust action, telling The Washington Post in March that “the antitrust bills that we are currently considering will not move forward under Republican leadership, and that’s been a very clear signal that has been sent.”

And now that the House is under Republican control, several experts have predicted that antitrust legislation is unlikely to move forward any time soon.

In an op-ed published Wednesday, President Joe Biden called on members of Congress to overcome partisan disagreements and keep tech companies in check by passing digital privacy, antitrust and content moderation legislation.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, responded to Biden’s comments in a statement that agreed with the need for privacy and content moderation action but did not mention antitrust.

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Antitrust

‘Time is Now’ for Separate Big Tech Regulatory Agency, Public Interest Group Says

‘We need to recognize that absolutely the time is now. It is neither too soon nor too late.’

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Photo of Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge

WASHINGTON, June 21, 2022 – Public Knowledge, non-profit public interest group, further advocated Thursday support for the Digital Platform Commission Act introduced in the Senate in May that would create a new federal agency designed to regulate digital platforms on an ongoing basis.

“We need to recognize that absolutely the time is now. It is neither too soon nor too late,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge.

The DPCA, introduced by Senator Michael Bennet, D-CO., and Representative Peter Welch, D-VT., would, if adopted, create a new federal agency designed to “provide comprehensive, sector-specific regulation of digital platforms to protect consumers, promote competition, and defend the public interest.”

The independent body would conduct hearings, research and investigations all while promoting competition and establishing rules with appropriate penalties.

Public Knowledge primarily focuses on competition in the digital marketplace. It champions for open internet and has openly advocated for antitrust legislation that would limit Big Tech action in favor of fair competition in the digital marketspace.

Feld published a book in 2019 titled, “The Case for the Digital Platform Act: Breakups, Starfish Problems and Tech Regulation.” In it, Feld explains the need for a separate government agency to regulate digital platforms.

Digital regulation is new but has rapidly become critical to the economy, continued Feld. As such, it is necessary for the government to create a completely new agency in order to provide the proper oversight.

In the past, Congress empowered independent bodies with effective tools and expert teams when it lacked expertise to oversee complex sectors of the economy but there is no such body for digital platforms, said Feld.

“The reality is that [Congress] can’t keep up,” said Welch. This comes at a time when antitrust action continues to pile up in Congress, sparking debate across all sides of the issue.

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Antitrust

FTC Commissioner Concerned About Antitrust Impact on Already Rising Consumer Prices

Noah Phillips said Tuesday he wants the commission to think about the impact of antitrust rules on rising prices.

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Screenshot of Federal Trade Commissioner Noah Phillips

WASHINGTON, May 17, 2022 – Rising inflation should be a primary concern for the Federal Trade Commission when considering antitrust regulations on Big Tech, said Commissioner Noah Phillips Tuesday.

When considering laws, “the important thing is what impact it has on the consumer,” said Phillips. “We need to continue to guard like a hawk against conduct and against laws that have the effect of raising prices for consumers.”

Current record highs in the inflation rate, which means money is becoming less valuable as products become more expensive, has meant Washington must become sensitive to further price increases that could come out of such antitrust legislation, the commissioner said.

Phillips did not comment on how such movies would mean higher prices, but that signals, such as theHouse Judiciary Committee’s antitrust report two years ago, that reign in Big Tech companies and bring back enforcement of laws could mean higher prices. He raised concerns that recent policies are prohibiting competition rather than facilitating it.

This follows recent concerns that the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, currently awaiting Senate floor consideration, will inhibit America’s global competitiveness by weakening major American companies, thus impairing the American economy. That legislation would prohibit platform owners from giving preference to their products against third-party products.

This act is one of many currently under consideration at Congress, including Ending Platform Monopolies Act and Platform Competition and Opportunity Act.

Small businesses have worried that by enacting some legislation targeting Big Tech, they would be impacted because they rely on such platforms for success.

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