Aug 20, 2020 - Technology

Former government officials argue for a new tech agency

Illustration of binoculars plugged into an ethernet cable

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The government should establish a new Digital Platform Agency to regulate major tech firms, three Democratic former federal officials argue in a new paper from Harvard's Shorenstein Center shared first with Axios.

Why it matters: This is the latest proposal being offered up as policymakers weigh possible methods of reining in Big Tech beyond rewriting antitrust laws or taking a gamble on enforcement action under existing ones.

Context: Former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, former DOJ antitrust counsel Gene Kimmelman and former FCC counsel Phil Verveer write in the paper that antitrust enforcement is important but not enough. They argue that today's economy requires a new agency akin to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

  • "We're trying to put out the idea and the concepts, and try to make the case that a new administration may see this as an appropriate challenge," Wheeler told Axios.

What they're saying: Dominant digital companies have made their own rules for consumers and the market absent federal oversight, the trio writes, maintaining that "internet capitalism" should be grounded in "public interest expectations."

  • "Make no mistake, the innovations and economic growth of the digital platform companies are very much in the public interest," they write. "This paper proposes a structure in which the public interest of strong and innovative companies and the public interest of consumer rights and competitive markets can both be preserved."

Details: The agency would be able to sue companies over misbehavior, and hold them to reasonable standards of care, stepping in if firms are harming consumers or behaving negligently.

  • "Move fast, break things means the companies get to break the rules," Wheeler said. "It's time for the public interest to catch up with that." He compared the standards the agency would use to the fire and electric codes that businesses have been held to for over a century.
  • The agency would place particular focus on promoting interoperability and responsible data practices and working stop platforms from preferencing their own goods, services or content over rivals'.

Yes, but: It's unlikely this Congress will take any action on the paper's ideas. But it could serve as a basis for something the new Congress proposes — though likely only if Democrats take control of both the House and the Senate and Joe Biden wins the presidency.

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