Democrat on FTC says agency should get more aggressive with big tech

Rohit Chopra says the Federal Trade Commission has gone too easy on tech giants.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee about the market power big tech companies wield. 

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Federal Trade Commissioner Rohit Chopra said the US government has been too soft on big tech companies. Chopra, a Democrat, testified Friday before a House Judiciary subcommittee about data privacy and the market power of large online platforms like Facebook and Google. 

Chopra said he's concerned government agencies allow these companies to get away with too much.  

"All too often, the government is too captured by those incumbents that use their power to dictate their preferred policies," he said in his testimony.

Chopra, who formerly worked with Sen. Elizabeth Warren to establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has criticized his own agency's handling of enforcement action against companies like Facebook and Google's YouTube. 

During the hearing, he said the FTC's record-breaking $5 billion settlement with Facebook announced this summer over the company's failure to safeguard data of up to 87 million users in the Cambridge Analytica scandal was not enough to stop Facebook from engaging in similar behavior in the future. In fact, he warned it may have had the opposite effect. 

"These big fines are not big penalties for big companies," he said. "And I worry it's not a penalty; it's an incentive."

Chopra has advocated for the FTC to use its rule-making authority to create  "bright line" rules that ban certain behavior to make clear to companies large and small that they must secure consumer data and protect consumer privacy. He also said there should be consequences for individual executives of companies that repeatedly violate the FTC's rules. 

"I also urge Congress to think about how we beef up individual liability in the FTC," he said. He noted that neither Facebook's chief executive officer and founder, Mark Zuckerberg, nor the company's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, were deposed as part of the FTC investigation, and yet those executives received full immunity as part of the settlement.  

"What kind of standard are we setting?" he said. 

The House Judiciary Committee's antitrust subcommittee has been holding a series of hearings since the summer, investigating whether big tech companies, like Amazon, Facebook, and Google,  have too much power in the marketplace and whether that power should be reigned in by the government. The end result could be a modernization of antitrust laws and federal privacy regulations to keep big tech platforms in check. 

All of this comes as Silicon Valley giants face severe criticism that their market dominance could be stifling competition and hurting consumers. Warren, a Democratic 2020 presidential candidate, has made it a key part of her platform to break up the big tech companies, including Google, Facebook and Amazon. 

Earlier this week, the subcommittee received the first large batch of documents from tech companies as part of the investigation, according to Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island, who chairs the panel. He said Friday that the subcommittee is going through "tens of thousands" of documents from the tech companies and seeking more.

The committee has requested records, which include emails from executives and documents about the companies' various acquisitions of smaller businesses.

Watch this: Should the government break up big tech? (The Daily Charge 7/16/2019)