As the US wrestles with what to do about the tremendous power its technology giants have amassed, the Federal Trade Commission is launching a new task force, which will keep tabs on the industry's competitive landscape and assess mergers both past and present. But critics say the creation of the task force is little more than an exercise in virtue signaling for a regulator that has lately failed to bring any meaningful action against tech monopolies.
In a call with reporters Tuesday, the FTC’s Bureau of Competition director Bruce Hoffman said the new 17-member task force will have the power to investigate both future mergers and finalized ones. Hoffman declined to name any specific companies that might soon face investigations, but this news won’t likely be welcome to companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google. All of them have consolidated their respective markets in recent years, and are already facing increasing calls for antitrust action from the public and members of Congress.
“By centralizing our expertise and attention, the new task force will be able to focus on these markets exclusively—ensuring they are operating pursuant to the antitrust laws, and taking action where they are not," Hoffman said in a statement. Those actions include breaking up firms that already have merged or requiring spinoffs.
While some tech critics, like former FTC chief technologist Ashkan Soltani , saw the announcement as a sign that the agency is taking antitrust issues seriously, others worried the task force amounts to little more than bureaucratic reconfiguring for FTC lawyers.
“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.”
The announcement comes on the heels of reports that the FTC is readying a multibillion-dollar fine against Facebook over its privacy settings, which may have violated a 2011 consent decree. That decree required Facebook to be more up-front with users about their privacy, a promise that was called into question after the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica managed to squirrel away tens of millions of Americans’ data without their knowledge before the 2016 election.
But Stoller notes that even a $2 billion fine would be the equivalent of “a parking ticket” to Facebook, which is worth nearly $470 billion. “We need a structural solution here,” he adds. “They need to be broken up, and the FTC needs to use its authority to do something similar to what the Germans did.” Stoller is referring to a recent ruling by Germany’s Federal Cartel Office, which requires Facebook to get users’ explicit consent before they can collect and combine data from Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. This would pose a major hurdle for Facebook, which is looking for more ways to combine features from all three services. The company said it planned to appeal the ruling.
Google has been hit with more than $7 billion worth of antitrust fines in the European Union in recent years and may reportedly face one more this year. Amazon, for its part, is currently the subject of antitrust probes in Austria and Germany.
But for all the investigations, hearings, and rumblings about fines at the FTC over the last few years, according to Stoller the commission has yet to take any real action. In Washington, it's certainly not alone in that regard. On Capitol Hill, members of Congress have talked endlessly about the need for legislation that would rein in Big Tech, particularly when it comes to privacy. But those conversations, which continued during a House committee hearing on privacy Tuesday, have been stuck in a loop for months with little end in sight.
Meanwhile, stories continue to swirl about all the ways in which these companies are using their market dominance to spy on, acquire, and crush the competition.
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