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Antitrust

FTC Divided Over Increasing Agency Jurisdiction at Congressional Hearing

FTC commissioners were split at a Congressional hearing on Wednesday at the prospects of increasing FTC jurisdiction.

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Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois.

July 29, 2021—Commissioners of the Federal Trade Commission were divided Wednesday on whether to increase the enforcement authority of the agency to better regulate big technology companies.

The commissioners appeared at a hearing of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce, which is studying 16 proposed bills facing Congress that aim to alter the FTC’s jurisdiction.

“The American people deserve a twenty-first century consumer protection agency that meets twenty-first century threats,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois.

The 16 bills, targeted at increasing the FTC’s ability to regulate technology companies, expands its jurisdiction over what and how it is allowed to enforce the law.

Advocates of Increased FTC Authority

FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan said that reports of fraud increased by 20 percent last year, alleging certain business models have promoted this and for which businesses are able to claim immunity under the law. She did not mention which businesses she was referring, or which laws provided immunity, but commissioner Rohit Chopra said Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was an impediment to the FTC’s mission of protecting consumers online.

Section 230 provides online platforms immunity for third-party content posted on their website, which means companies like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter cannot be held accountable for fraudulent activity that takes place on their platforms.

Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter alleges that Section 230 protects online firms’ illegal conduct. Democratic commissioners prodded Congress to pass legislation that would increase the FTC’s jurisdiction to better police activity that harms consumers, such as online fraudulent activity.

“Bills that would end special protections for select industries would also strengthen our law enforcement,” Khan said. “For example, the Online Consumer Protection Act would clarify that platforms cannot claim special privileges when facing an FTC enforcement action. Meanwhile, the Protecting Consumers and Commerce Act and Removing Nonprofit Exemption Act would allow the FTC to challenge abuses by common carriers and nonprofit entities.”

Critics of Expanding FTC Authority

Earlier this month, the FTC held an open meeting of which Commissioner Noah Phillips was a critic. The FTC voted on several measures, including rescinding a rule that limited the agency’s enforcement powers, and allowed time for public comment after the vote had been taken. Phillips said he believes that allowing the public to comment after the vote has signaled a departure from public accountability.

“On July 1, without input from the public, we adopted rules to enable us to promulgate regulations with less objectivity, less oversight, and less public input,” Phillips said. “The Commission majority is reducing what it calls red-tape on the commission to impose more red-tape on American businesses—large and small.”

He added that regulating big technology companies, such as Facebook and Google, is work best suited for Congress, not an independent government agency with less democratic accountability.

“Well-crafted regulation can help consumers and businesses, but poor regulatory design can raise prices, stifle innovation, and reduce consumer choice,” Phillips said.

Phillips’ Republican counterpart on the Commission, Christine Wilson, joined in his critique, fearing that increasing the FTC’s jurisdiction could lead to FTC overreach in the future.

Reporter Tyler Perkins studied rhetoric and English literature, and also economics and mathematics, at the University of Utah. Although he grew up in and never left the West (both Oregon and Utah) until recently, he intends to study law and build a career on the East Coast. In his free time, he enjoys reading excellent literature and playing poor golf.

Antitrust

Former Federal Trade Commission Chairman Says Biden is Inappropriately Exhorting the Agency

Former Chairman William Kovacic said that Biden’s direction of the FTC raises expectations for the agency.

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Photo of George Washington University professor William Kovacic giving a lecture in 2017 from the university

WASHINGTON, January 28, 2022 – A former Federal Trade Commission chairman criticized the Biden administration’s direction of the FTC to accomplish the president’s antitrust goals.

At a Wednesday forum of the Mercatus Institute, former FTC Chairman William Kovacic criticized Joe Biden’s “instruction, direction, and exhortation” to the FTC, which is an independent agency and not part of the executive branch.

In July, President Biden directed regulators to craft rules preventing manufacturers like Microsoft and Apple from restrict consumers’ ability to fix their own devices. After the FTC voted unanimously to increase its enforcement against “right to repair” restrictions, both Microsoft and Apple announced plans for consumers to repair their own products.

Kovacic said that Biden almost appears to have the attitude that he “gave [the FTC and DOJ] an assignment” to advance the Biden administration’s consumer protection goals.

Then imagining that he was arguing from the perspective of the Biden administration, Kovacic said Biden could argue that he gave the FTC “an assignment to work on those guidelines and an exhortation to the FTC to get the work done,” as opposed to specific marching orders on the topics.

Mismatched capabilities at the FTC

Kovacic, who served as a commissioner at the FTC beginning in 2006, and who chaired the agency from 2008 to 2009, said the FTC has a history of mismatching its commitments with its capabilities.

In developing consumer protection programs, currently a professor of law at George Washington University, said the FTC often fails to ask “basic questions about who would do it, how long it would take, how much it would cost, and whether or not the institution has the credibility or capacity” to administer successful programs.

Kovacic said that in order to achieve a successful regulatory agenda, there must be a “stability of perspectives” that will endure across administrations.

Policymakers should be mindful not to abandon the resistance from total regulatory overhaul that he said “afflicted” his predecessors as chairs of the agency.

“Everybody will step forward and say, ‘I have my list.’ I suspect the Commission already is getting a letter each day from members of Congress saying, ‘here’s another one.’”

Recalling the many prior presidents’ push for regulators to control petroleum prices – including by President Biden in November – Kovacic said the FTC can’t always deliver.

“Whenever there’s going to be a problem the new leadership, seen as competition policy superheroes, will be exhorted to do something, and it will not be an adequate response to say, ‘we’ve already got a lot on the agenda, we’ll get to it when we can.'”

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Antitrust

Consolidation, Bloat, and a Waning American ‘Brand’ Hurt the Economy, Says Tim Wu

He argued that fundamental changes must be made to restore peoples’ faith in an American system that works for everyone.

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Photo of Tim Wu from January 2017 on Wikipedia Day used with permission

WASHINGTON, January 26, 2022 –White House Special Assistant Tim Wu said Wednesday that the U.S. economy is over-consolidated and bloated in the middle.

Speaking at an event hosted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Wu, a member of the National Economic Council with a portfolio over Technology and Competition Policy, argued that that the “American dream” has suffered major setbacks in recent decades.

Wu, who is credited with coining the term “net neutrality” and a longstanding critic of telecom monopolies, has more recently become an outspoken critic of big technology companies.

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“We can see very vividly how fragile this concentrated economic system we built has been and how poorly it is working for the whole country,” Wu said.

“Our country has become too centralized. It is too national in its character – in terms of where businesses are location – too centered on consumption, as opposed to production.

“Too many of the [economic] returns go to too few people who often live very far away from the communities they serve.”

Hearkening to the post-World War II decades in which Western nations endorsed significant government intervention in the economy as part of social democracy, Wu said that America is “relearning the virtues and merits of a mixed economy – that is the truer American tradition of small and medium business – market structures where [people] can all survive and prosper; what [President Joe Biden] calls ‘an economy that works for everyone.’”

Can elements of a new form of social democracy be revived in a technology-drenched age?

Wu distilled his criticisms to three primary points: Too many industries have become too consolidated, a bloated “middleman” economy has emerged, and the “American brand” has diminished.

“We have all seen so many industries consolidate into just the ‘big three’ or ‘big four,’” Wu said. “That is a traditional problem that I think extracts a lot from the economy.”

Wu went on to explain the “middleman” economy – a rise of a “highly concentrated middle layer” across many industries. This bloat on the processing end takes place somewhere between the inception of a product or service and the consumer is extracting too much revenue, Wu said.

“When you think about monopoly – which is just high prices – it leads to this problem where the middlemen have power over their suppliers and are able to squeeze their suppliers and also often able to squeeze their employees,” Wu said. This is “a new kind of problem for the economy, and one that we need to face.”

ILSR’s Stacey Mitchell and Tim Wu.

What is the ‘American brand’?

Wu’s final point related to what he referred to as the “American brand.”

“There has been a real sense that the sense of opportunity that has been the ‘American brand’ has diminished,” he said. “The statistics are a little depressing that confirm this.”

75 percent of U.S. industries are controlled by fewer companies than they were 20 years ago, Wu said. He pointed to mergers that skyrocketed in the 1980s and predicted that 2022 will feature a record number of mergers.

“These are real challenges and I just want to assure you that the administration of the White House is very focused on [them] and we see it not just in terms of the economy, but in terms of the Democratic soul of this nation,” Wu said. “Freedom and opportunity are not trivial things when it comes to describing what democracy is all about.

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Antitrust

FTC Mum on Microsoft-Activision Deal, Proposes Review of Merger Guidelines

The deal would elevate Microsoft in an even more favorable position in the games-as-a-service market.

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FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan on CNBC last week

WASHINGTON, January 24, 2022 – As Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Lina Khan does media rounds this past week, she has refused to comment on last week’s news that Microsoft has agreed to buy video game making giant Activision-Blizzard for nearly $70 billion.

As per policy, the FTC and the Department of Justice, which on Tuesday jointly held a press conference on merger reform on the same day of the announced consolidation, said they could not comment on the deal, which would increase the Xbox maker’s gaming market share and allow it to better compete with Japanese behemoth Sony.

During the press conference, Khan, installed as chairwoman in June as an already outspoken critic of certain big tech practices, announced that the organizations would be launching a review of merger guidelines. Khan stressed that the current guidelines do not adequately protect consumers and promote competition in the era of the digital economy.

“While the current merger boom has delivered massive fees for investment banks, evidence suggests that many Americans historically have washed out with diminished opportunity, higher prices, lower wages, and lagging innovation,” she said. “These facts invite us to assess how our merger policy tools can better equip us to discharge our statutory obligations and halt this trend.”

She reiterated those goals on a CNBC interview on Wednesday. The purchase of the highly influential Call of Duty franchise maker will have to go through her office. It also presents another stress test for the office, as it is already engaged in an existing lawsuit against Facebook practices. Both Facebook and Amazon have asked for Khan to be recused from investigations in their companies because of her past positions on them.

The deal would significantly expand Microsoft’s Game Pass platform, which offers free games to play for a monthly subscription. Microsoft announced on the day of the proposed deal that Game Pass surpassed 25 million subscriptions.

“Upon close, we will offer as many Activision Blizzard games as we can within Xbox Game Pass and PC Game Pass, both new titles and games from Activision Blizzard’s incredible catalog,” said Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer said in a statement.

Despite its numerous successful intellectual properties, Activision Blizzard has been marred with scandal in recent years. In 2021, the company was sued by California Department of Fair Employment and Housing for promoting a “frat boy” culture, whereby female employees were not only allegedly discriminated against, but also subjected to sexual assault and misconduct.

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