The Technology 202: Senators grill agency officials over infighting in push to regulate big tech
Senators on the Judiciary Committee grilled officials from the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department, who have opened probes into competition in the technology industry. They want to know how those agencies are collaborating with each other — as well as the 50 state and territory attorneys general who have launched antitrust investigations into Google. Senators raised concerns that antitrust laws haven’t been properly enforced, and they pressed the officials to give them more specifics about their probes — which include the FTC’s investigation of Facebook as well as the DOJ’s broad review of competition in Silicon Valley and investigation of Google.
“The fact that you’re coming here without any specifics, I think, reinforces the impression that federal antitrust enforcement is an empty suit,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “Call it a culture of capitulation. What the public sees is a facade with respect to Big Tech and no immediate prospect of urgency.”
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) also piled on, saying the agencies shouldn’t be given the increased funding or resources they’ve requested until they sort out their jurisdictional issues.
“What I see from your agency is frankly a culture of paralysis,” Hawley said. “I’m tempted to call it a culture of capitulation.”
The fiery hearing highlighted how the agencies could face an uphill battle in their efforts to take on some of the world’s richest and most powerful companies. The officials both acknowledged that at times their agencies waste time on turf battles and infighting.
“I can’t deny that there are instances where [FTC] Chairman [Joseph] Simons and my time is wasted on those types of squabbles,” said Justice’s top antitrust official, Makan Delrahim.
These squabbles have been in the spotlight as the Wall Street Journal reports that both agencies have been engaged in a turf war over Facebook. The FTC sent a letter to DOJ last week complaining about that department’s behavior, according to the Journal. The FTC is already probing the social-media giant, and taking a close look at the company’s past acquisitions. DOJ wants to scrutinize other company practices, but the Journal reports both think the other agency is violating agreements they reached in the summer.
Some lawmakers said the infighting raises questions about whether there should be two agencies with jurisidiction over antitrust.
“I have been critical of the fact that we have two federal agencies responsible for civil antitrust enforcement,” Sen. Mike Lee (R.-Utah) said during the hearing. “I have to say, your two agencies have done a remarkable job in recent months of making my points.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said she is concerned the United States needs to be focused on the bigger picture and look at the “monopoly issues of our time.” European regulators have been much more active on antitrust in the tech sector, and have brought major fines against American companies like Google.
The senators tough questions come after they loudly criticized recent government actions against Big Tech, particularly the FTC’s attempts to fine the companies for privacy. Both Blumenthal and Hawley pressed the officials on their recent $5 billion fine against Facebook, which was widely criticized as a slap on a wrist.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Sen. Josh Hawley is a Republican.