Federal Trade Commission Nominees Pressed on Stance on Tech Giants

WASHINGTON (CN) – Nominees for the Federal Trade Commission board told lawmakers Wednesday they would consider ramping up pressure on technology giants to ensure fair competition in the market.

The FTC has been the focus on much criticism from antitrust advocates over its dealings with the tech industry ever since it reached a settlement with Google in 2013 over claims the search engine giant manipulated its search results.

In announcing that settlement, which followed a two-year investigation, the commission said Google had not violated antitrust or anti-competition statutes in the way it handled searches.

Joseph Simons, a Republican nominated by President Donald Trump to chair the commission board, told lawmakers that in his view “big [corporations] are not necessarily bad … but I also believe big is not necessarily good.”

“Sometimes big is good, sometimes big is bad,” Simons said. “Sometimes it’s both at the same time. Often times these companies get big because they’re successful with the consumer.”

“On the other hand, sometimes companies use anticompetitive means to get big and stay big and if that’s the case, we must investigate,” he said.

Rohit Chopra, the sole democrat nominated  by the Trump administration for a seat on the commission board, said monitoring competition in the tech arena would go beyond keeping an eye on the larger firms but would require a broader perspective and recognition of an increasingly interconnected marketplace.

“Large tech firms don’t just compete with each other, they’re competing with several other sectors of economy: healthcare companies, retail …This is a challenge for equity and debt analysts trying to predict how industries will evolve and it implores us to have a talent for analytical capabilities,” Chopra said. “It’s an area we need to be humble [about] and continue to learn and understand [the market] dynamics.”

Lawmakers also wanted to know how the nominees would handle consumer concerns involving the digital technology.

The FTC is currently investigating Equifax which was hacked last year. The breach compromised personal information for more than 140 million people in the United States

The nominees said because the Equifax investigation is still ongoing, they couldn’t comment on how to rectify such a large scale security breach.

But all four nominees, including Republicans Christine Wilson and Noah Phillips, agreed to work closely with the Justice Department on any enforcement matters.

The only hiccup during an otherwise uneventful hearing, was a momentary bit of confusion between Simons and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass.

Markey asked Simons if he agreed with a warning last December from  former FTC chairwoman Terrell McSweeney. McSweeney warned about the possible pitfalls of overturning the net neutrality rules.

McSweeney said the FTC “did not have the specialized expertise in telecommunications” nor the engineers or data management experts to monitor “the real limits to the effectiveness of the FTC tools ensuring networks are open and free from harmful discrimination.”

Simons said he was unsure what types of “uncompetitive or unfair or deceptive practices” would occur in terms of a company’s activities online, but if the FTC had the authority under a statute to resolve a problem, he would seek assistance from the senate committee.

Markey introduced legislation last month blocking the FCC’s net neutrality repeal under authority granted to Congress by the Congressional Review Act.

Until the Open Internet Order is officially reversed, Markey noted, the FTC would continue to lack the rulemaking authority to stop internet service providers from throttling access, or creating fast lanes online for premium cost.

Simons said he is currently unsure what his authority will be over the internet. He said if confirmed he would consider speaking with the commission’s general counsel for clarification.

“I’m not entirely clear,” he said.

Jeff Chester, executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy told Courthouse News Wednesday the new slate of commissioners would inherit a commission “that has lost credibility as an effective agency, in part because it has so little statutory authority.”

“The FTC, for example, is incapable of adequately confronting the tremendous loss of privacy that Americans regularly face today,” Chester said. “That’s why US consumer groups have linked up with their European Union counterparts to take advantage of stronger consumer and data protection regulation in Europe. We plan to try and regulate privacy and digital consumer protection through pressure and action in the EU—something we hope will also force the FTC’s hand to finally act.”

Without “real statutory powers,” the FTC’s problems won’t lessen, Chester noted, but for their part, he said, they’re committed to working on a consumer protection agenda should the new crop of commissioners be confirmed.

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