Democrats regained a majority on the Federal Trade Commission, allowing Chairwoman Lina Khan to push forward an aggressive and liberal anti-monopoly and consumer protection agenda focused on big tech and big oil.
Wednesday’s commission confirmation of Biden’s nominee Alvaro Bedoya, a Georgetown University law professor and prominent privacy advocate, will give Democrats a 3-2 advantage in votes related to Big Business regulation. Tech and on issues related to monopolistic corporate conduct, mergers, and fraudulent activities.
The FTC is one of the primary federal agencies charged with regulating Big Tech companies and other large industries with respect to issues related to antitrust, data privacy, and security.
Khan and committee Democrats will likely use their new majority to investigate and file new trials versus Big tech companies like Amazon. They are also likely to investigate allegations of rising oil prices, as Democrats want, and, more generally, scrutinize recent major mergers and finding ways to strengthen the privacy of consumer and child data.
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Liberals are keen for committee Democrats to act quickly after being blocked by the two Republican commissioners for eight months.
“It’s frustrating for us that Republican Commissioners have impeded progress on bipartisan issues, like Big Tech’s abuse of power,” said Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, a think tank liberal focused on antitrust issues.
“We expect there will be strong pressure for enforcement action on tech companies – on reversing mergers of dominant platforms, tightening data privacy standards, l ‘reviewing drug prices and investigating whether oil prices are rising amid high inflation’, she mentioned.
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Republican antitrust lawyers are skeptical that skyrocketing oil prices were caused by unfair price gouging.
“When it comes to fuel price investigations, I’m afraid this is a recurring mistake every time fuel prices go up,” said Makan Delrahim, former President Donald Trump’s assistant attorney general for the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice.
Democrats accuse the oil industry of ripping people off with price gouging, while Republicans have blamed President Joe Biden’s policies for high inflation and restrictions on oil drilling.
“Politicians are asking the FTC to investigate, and the response has repeatedly been supply and demand issues. The commission can just respond with the proven demand curve that we all learn about in Economics 101,” Delrahim said.
Neil Chilson, acting chief technologist at the FTC for a year during the Trump administration, said he feared partisanship would drive the Democratic agenda at the agency.
“Inflation is the number one concern of Americans, but an investigation into oil prices is a political game and nothing will come of it,” he said.
“At most, strong language … to discourage price collusion may be issued, but no economist will back down to take action, and the FTC has no authority to bring a case into this space unless there is a clear violation of antitrust law,” said Chilson, who is now a senior researcher on technology issues at the Charles Koch Institute, a libertarian research organization.
Chilson added that he expects Khan to make “aggressive economy-wide and rules-wide investigations that the courts will be very skeptical of” because Khan wants to “move the goal post of what is possible to the FTC through new competition rules”.
The FTC should focus on halting recent large mergers, such as the Microsoft-Activision Agreement and the Amazon–MGM mergeras well as amending the merger guidelines policies.
“The main focus of Democrats these days is to rewrite the merger guidelines,” said Matt Stoller, antitrust expert and author of Goliath: The Hundred Years War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy.
The desire to rewrite the merger guidelines will likely lead to greater government review of merger deals between companies, especially in the tech industry, which has come under increased scrutiny in recent years after a series of notable acquisitions by Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft.
However, the FTC is unlikely to try to stop Musk from taking over Twitter given that the billionaire CEO has no major conflicts of interest that could violate antitrust law.
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“I don’t think the FTC will block buying Twitter. I don’t see a path to that,” Stoller said.