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Google and Facebook could face FTC antitrust scrutiny

During a Senate confirmation hearing, nominees to serve on the Federal Trade Commission say they'd be open to considering antitrust action against big tech firms.

FTC

Joseph Simons, nominee to serve on the Federal Trade Commission, testifies Wednesday during a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee confirmation.

Tom Williams

President Donald Trump's pick to lead the Federal Trade Commission told the Senate Commerce Committee Wednesday that he's open to investigating big tech firms like Facebook and Google, should they use their power inappropriately.

John Simons and three other nominees testified Wednesday before a Senate panel ahead of their confirmation. Republicans Christine Wilson and Noah Phillips and Democrat Rohit Chopra agreed that they'd be willing to regulate big tech companies as well, if they felt it was necessary.

If the commissioners are confirmed by the Senate, the agency will once again be fully staffed. For nearly a year, the commission, which is tasked with overseeing mergers and policing companies for violations of consumer protection laws, has operated with only two commissioners. The FTC works with the US Justice Department to enforce antitrust law.

The nominees were asked about a wide range of topics, from how they'd address antitrust concerns over big tech companies to protecting consumers in the wake of serious data breaches and whether they felt the FTC was equipped to police the internet.  

Confirmation of the four nominees is expected to go through smoothly. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, said he hoped to move the nominations quickly to the floor for a vote.

How to handle big tech

Thune asked the nominees about antitrust enforcement and the need for more regulatory authority of large tech firms, such as Facebook and Google. These companies have come under increased scrutiny on Capitol Hill as some have questioned their size and influence, particularly in light of the fact that Russia used the platforms during the 2016 election to disseminate propaganda.

Simons said that "at a high level," he didn't view big as necessarily good or bad. But he noted that if a company is anticompetitive in an effort to remain big, he would "vigorously" enforce antitrust laws to prohibit the conduct.  

Wilson alluded to the FTC's investigation of Google under the Obama administration over whether the company manipulated search results to give itself an advantage in the market.  The agency had been criticized for settling with Google in early 2013. Wilson noted that it may be time to take another look.

"There's been a lapse of time and technology has evolved," she said. "So it may make sense to take another look at concerns that have been raised." She added that no company "is above the law."

The tough stance seemed to be supported by some Republicans on the committee, as Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, noted during the hearing that "a number of members of this committee are concerned with the scope and control of big tech."

Add net neutrality to the list

The nominees were also asked about the FTC's willingness and authority to police the internet.  

Soon, the agency will also be tasked with preserving an open internet. In December, the Federal Communications Commission voted to scrap net neutrality rules that ensured broadband providers could not slow down or block access to content or charge companies a fee to access customers faster. The vote also reinstated a non-regulated classification for broadband, which abdicates much of the FCC's authority and hands that oversight to the FTC.

Critics of the FCC's vote, including current Democratic FTC commissioner Terrell McSweeney, argue that the FTC lacks the rule-making authority or technical expertise to adequately protect an open internet. During the confirmation hearing, Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts and staunch net neutrality supporter, pressed Simons on this point. Simons said he'd do his best to enforce consumer protection laws to ensure broadband customers are protected from abuse. He also said that the FTC does have rule-making authority when it comes to net neutrality even though it may differ from the FCC's authority.

"If the FTC gets back its authority in the internet space, we will be a vigorous enforcer," he said.

Net neutrality has become a politically divisive issue with Republicans siding with big broadband companies in the belief that the prior FCC went too far when it reclassified broadband as a public utility. They argue it's hurt investment in broadband.

Democrats are on the other side of the debate along with consumer advocates and companies like Google, Facebook and Netflix, which support net neutrality rules that they say protect the openness of the internet.

Security breaches

Lawmakers also asked the four nominees about the FTC's investigation into Equifax, which was hacked last year, compromising the personal information of 143 million Americans.

An FTC probe on Equifax is still ongoing. The nominees were careful not to delve too deeply into the case. Simons said he's "extremely concerned" about whether the FTC has enough authority to deal with companies that don't take proper safeguards. He asked the lawmakers to consider giving the agency more authority.

If the four nominees are confirmed, there will still be one seat left to fill the commission. Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, has recommended that Trump nominate one of his top aides, Rebecca Slaughter, to be the second Democratic seat. A second confirmation hearing will be held for her if she is formally nominated.

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