The FTC Probably Doesn't Need A New 'Big Tech' Task Force. It Just Needs To Do Its Job
from the dog-and-pony-show dept
This week the FTC turned a few heads by announcing that the agency would be creating a new “task force” designed specifically to monitor large technology companies. According to the agency’s announcement, this new task force will feature approximately 17 staff attorneys whose mandate will be to more closely examine the competitive tech landscape, and take action if necessary. According to the FTC, this includes taking a closer look at both pending mergers, and large technology mergers that have already happened.
“In addition to examining industry practices and conducting law enforcement investigations, the Technology Task Force will, among other things, coordinate and consult with staff throughout the FTC on technology-related matters, including prospective merger reviews in the technology sector and reviews of consummated technology mergers.”
Some, like former Chief FTC technologist Ashkan Soltani, took the announcement to mean that the FTC might just start taking antitrust more seriously in the wake of numerous embarrassing enforcement face plants on this front (like the government’s comedic inability to address the glaringly obvious anticompetitive impact of AT&T’s latest merger):
YES THIS!> @FTC signaling they're taking technology competition seriously by launching taskforce of 17 attorneys + technology fellow with expertise in
– online advertising
– social networking
– mobile operating systems and apps
– platforms businesses https://t.co/5eT6mWHYNT
— ashkan soltani (@ashk4n) February 26, 2019
Others were justly more skeptical. After all, examining the health of the tech market, contemplating the impact of mergers, and taking actions to address market imbalance and fraud is the FTC’s entire job to begin with. And, given the FTC often fails utterly to do that job (especially in the telecom sector), a lot of folks were quick to wonder if this task force was a bit of a show pony:
“I?m scornful of the new seating arrangements, because the FTC has consistently proven they do not want to wield power,? says Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, an antimonopoly think tank that has called for a breakup of Facebook. ?They want to hold hearings. They want to get their friend economists and antitrust lawyers to fly into DC and talk to each other. They don?t want to do their No. 1 job, which is to police markets for unfair and anticompetitive behavior.?
While I’m not sold on the need to break up Facebook, it’s a solid point that the FTC should maybe focus on doing the job it already has, and layering additional bureaucracy on a broken apparatus may not be the best path forward. The FTC routinely does nothing to address problematic sectors like telecom, where anti-competitive megamergers and ripping off customers is an almost daily occurrence. For example, the FTC could easily crack down on the bogus fees companies like Comcast use to jack up your advertised rate using its power under the FTC Act, yet I’ve never seen the agency so much as fart in the direction of the problem when bigger companies are involved.
While there’s certainly a lot of solid complaints to be made about “big tech” giants like Facebook and Google (especially on the privacy front), it’s also pretty obvious that a lot of the recent criticisms of “big tech” aren’t being made in good faith. Claims of “censorship” of conservatives, for example, usually don’t hold up under scrutiny, and are often driven by folks who wouldn’t be facing these problems if they didn’t behave like legendary assholes on the internet in the first place.
Similarly a lot of the recent criticism of big tech is coming from telecom giants eager to saddle Silicon Valley giants with unnecessary regulation in a bid to hoover up a bigger slice of the online advertising pie. On the one hand, telecom giants like AT&T and Verizon just got done convincing the FCC to effectively neuter itself, leaving any remaining oversight in the lap of an FTC they know won’t (and often can’t) hold them accountable. At the same time, telecom lobbyists like Mike Powell have spent the last few years drumming up frothy calls to regulate “big tech,” intentionally ignoring their own anticompetitive ambitions:
“Our governmental authorities need to get a handle on what kind of market power and harm flow from companies that have an unassailable hold on large pools of big data, which serve as barriers to entry, allowing them to dominate industries throughout the economy. For years, big tech companies have been extinguishing competitive threats by buying or crushing promising new technologies just as they were emerging. They dominate their core business, and rarely have to foreclose competition by buying their peers. Competition policy must scrutinize more rigorously deals that allow dominant platforms to kill competitive technologies in the cradle.”
You’re to ignore that telecom monopolies engage in all of this exact behavior, yet government regulators from both parties routinely turn a blind eye to it. And while Comcast desperately wants to be seen as in line with tech giants like Apple, you’ll notice that here, telecom has somehow mystically excused itself from the table of accountability, despite being arguably the most problematic sectors in all of “tech” thanks to their actual, growing monopoly over internet access.
Yes, if the task force genuinely results in the FTC finally taking its mandate seriously, enforcing antitrust, and policing terrible behavior, all the better. But given the recent climate, it’s probably wise to be wary of this effort being little more than a show pony scripted by sectors and individuals not entirely arguing in good faith.