GOP Must Appoint FTC Commissioner Who Will Rein in Big Tech

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It was reported this week that Noah Phillips, a Republican commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission, will step down in the fall. While Biden will likely nominate his successor, tradition suggests he will defer to Senate Republicans – read: Mitch McConnell – for the choice. This gives the GOP an opportunity to turn the page on more than a decade of Big Tech appeasement by Republican FTC commissioners like Phillips and his predecessors.

The FTC’s historical record on Big Tech is abysmal, having endorsed the anti-competitive acquisitions and predatory behaviors that allowed tech platforms to become the monopolistic juggernauts they are today. And conservatives increasingly believe, and rightly so, that their rebukes of Big Tech, the Chinese Communist Party’s bootlicking speech censorship, are downstream of corporate market power – l lack of real competition allows bad behavior.

That’s why conservative organizations like my employer, American Principles Project, have worked with anti-monopolists from all political backgrounds to support antitrust legislation that will allow the FTC and other agencies to check the power of these companies. .

Last year, Republicans signaled their desire for change at the FTC when 21 senators walked down the aisle to vote to confirm Lina Khan as commissioner; she was later nominated to chair the agency by Biden. This rare display of bipartisanship was for a reason: Khan pledged to rein in Big Tech.

The FTC’s Big Tech enforcement record has been abysmal for more than a decade. Between 2010 and 2019, big tech companies completed more than 600 deals involving smaller companies, including anti-competitive takeovers of Instagram and WhatsApp. Particularly under the Obama administration, these takeovers were automatically approved by the FTC. In 2013, the FTC even closed an investigation into Google’s monopoly power — a problem that was apparent then but only got worse in the years that followed.

The Trump administration has made some progress in enforcing antitrust laws, but the FTC’s record still leaves much to be desired. Consistent with Obama’s failed FTC policy framework, Trump’s FTC failed to block a single tech merger. Just a few weeks ago, Republican commissioners continued to vote against the first big Big Tech challenge. And now reports indicate that the FTC is set to greenlight another tech merger, with Microsoft, the world’s second-largest company, seeking to acquire Activision, one of the biggest video game companies. .

On the last point, this is exactly the kind of merger where one would expect to see bipartisan opposition. From the perspective of the left, this should suit them as supposed opponents of the concentration of corporate power. As a bonus, both companies have all sorts of woke fatwas about them – the funniest being after Activision failed to grant enough work-from-home days in response to employee demand following the Supreme Court ruling. . Dobbs decision. But aside from a harshly worded letter from four left-leaning senators, the outcry over the deal has been fairly muted.

From the right, you’d expect to see groups sounding the alarm about the growing dominance of Microsoft, a company with a questionable track record on China at best – from blocking words like “Taiwan independence” to bashing from a dissident Chinese journalist to Bing censorship search results for “Tank Man” on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. (The company says the latest instance of censorship only happened due to “human error.” Color me skeptical.)

Given the company’s track record of appeasing China for monetary gain, conservatives should be concerned about Microsoft’s dominance in the games market, a critical and growing industry in the United States and China. . Will the video game be the next vector of Chinese censorship, or will it remain a vector of free expression and American values?

But by and large these concerns are not being raised, at least not publicly. Big tech companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying up organizations working in this space. For example, at least one major left-wing organization, Access Now, which has openly come out in favor of antitrust legislation (bills that largely spare Microsoft any impact), has said nothing about the deal. Perhaps not coincidentally, the organization has received over $1 million in donations from Microsoft over the years.

Are other groups that would normally oppose the agreement in the same situation? It’s hard to know for sure. Unlike big tech rivals Facebook and Google, Microsoft isn’t very transparent on this issue.

These Big Tech companies know their power is safe as long as they control the FTC’s five-member board of directors. The sad truth is that they have had this control for most of the past decades. If the Republicans regain power, and especially if they win the presidency, they will have the opportunity to reshape the FTC by appointing people who are genuinely interested in law enforcement rather than acceding to all of Big Tech’s demands. But even now, the GOP has an exciting opportunity with the choice of Phillips’ successor. Mitch McConnell has to nail this one.


Jon Schweppe is Director of Policy and Government Affairs at American Principles Project. Follow him on Twitter @JonSchweppe.

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