Republican senator targets Google and Facebook with FTC overhaul plan

Sen. Josh Hawley from Missouri wants to dismantle the FTC and reconstitute it under the Department of Justice.

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

Sen. Josh Hawley says the FTC needs massive reform to effectively police big tech companies like Google and Facebook.

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Republican Sen. Josh Hawley wants to overhaul the Federal Trade Commission in an effort to deal with the power wielded by big tech companies like Google and Facebook. On Monday, he introduced a proposal that would dismantle the current structure of the agency, tasked with protecting US consumers, and put it under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice. 

 "It is time for Congress to overhaul the FTC and bring it into the 21st century," according to the plan published by Hawley's office

The FTC in its current structure "lacks teeth," the Missouri senator's proposal says. He adds that the agency has a "divided" jurisdiction, and "wastes time in turf wars with the Department of Justice." In short, he says that in its current form, the FTC "is in no shape to ensure competition in today's markets, let alone tomorrow's." 

Specifically, Hawley's proposal would replace the five-member commission appointed by the president with a single director confirmed by the Senate. The agency would operate under the Justice Department, and it'd be offered new tools that would allow it to specifically go after concerns related to large tech companies, like privacy. 

Hawley has criticized the FTC before for not holding companies like Facebook and Google accountable for data breaches and mishandling of consumer data, but the proposal is the most aggressive stance he's taken yet against the agency. 

The FTC issued record fines against Facebook and Google this past year, but the fines were small in comparison to the annual revenue these companies generate. 

Hawley's proposal comes as Democrats, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, call for the breakup of these big companies, and Republicans, like President Donald Trump, accuse the tech giants of unfairly suppressing conservative views

Democratic lawmakers also have their own ideas about how to deal with the influence of big tech firms. Reps. Anna Eshoo and Zoe Lofgren, both of California, want to create a new federal agency to protect consumer privacy rights

Hawley has argued a new agency would have many of the same problems the FTC has. One of the issues, he says in his proposal, is the revolving door between the agency and these companies. Once commissioners leave service, they often go work for big companies. 

Hawley's proposal considers whether a two-year ban should go into effect to bar people at agencies like the FTC from working for companies with more than $30 billion in annual revenue.

But the biggest issue is the in-fighting between the FTC and the Justice Department, which are both tasked with enforcing antitrust laws. Both agencies have announced investigations into the largest tech companies like Google and Facebook over allegations that they've abused their power and used it to squash smaller competitors. But the FTC Chairman Joe Simons and Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, who's in charge of antitrust enforcement at the Justice Department, have admitted to Congress that divvying up duties has been difficult.

Hawley's proposal would put the FTC under the Justice Department's jurisdiction, which in theory should resolve those conflicts that result from "jurisdictional" overlap.  

Representatives from Google, Facebook and the FTC weren't available for comment.