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Tech: Meet your new FTC overlords

A sign in front of Facebook's headquarters at night
The sign outside of Facebook's headquarters. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

The four new commissioners who joined the Federal Trade Commission this month, and another joining later this year, are poised to weigh in on major tech issues, from privacy to concentration of market power.

Why it matters: The FTC is the federal agency best positioned to answer the regulatory questions plaguing Silicon Valley, including an investigation into Facebook's handling of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Here’s your guide to the commission's new key players.

With Donald Trump in office, the five-member agency's agenda is controlled by the Republican chairman. It's made up of three Republicans and two Democrats.

The Republicans:

  • Chairman Joe Simons has expressed an openness to taking on issues related to the tech industry. He’s also a practiced enforcer: when he served at the FTC in the early 2000s, the agency sued to prevent anti-competitive mergers in the spirits and ice cream markets, Reuters notes. That means he’ll be closely watched as the agency vets concerns about user privacy and monopoly power in Silicon Valley.
    • He's also moved to appoint a lawyer who represented Facebook and Equifax to the top of the agency's consumer protection division.
  • Commissioner Noah Phillips handled much of the judiciary policy portfolio for Sen. John Cornyn, and there’s some sign he could be friendly to tech: a patent bill Cornyn backed while Phillips worked for him was favorable to some Silicon Valley companies that have worried for years about so-called “patent trolls.”
  • Commissioner Christine Wilson has held her cards close to the vest on tech, promising to review the issue of algorithmic transparency. She takes a view that size alone does not make a company anticompetitive.
    • Wilson has yet to actually join the agency, while former Acting Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen serves out her term awaiting confirmation to another post.

The Democrats:

  • Commissioner Rohit Chopra may be a thorn in tech’s side. An ally of the populist Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, he said in his written answers to the Senate’s questions that he, too, doesn’t see size as triggering an antitrust review under the law. But he also suggested that the combination of tech firms' competition across sectors and increasing share of U.S. economic activity and growth calls for careful scrutiny to ensure that "competition is robust.”
  • Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter worked for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for years, including when he backed that patent bill favorable to some in tech that was also supported by Phillips’ boss Cornyn. She indicated she takes seriously concerns about online tracking of consumers. "Control over data, and related control over online advertising markets, may be an important factor in considering competition and consumer protection issues, because citizens (and their data) are often the product rather than the consumers," she said in written answers to the Senate.

The bottom line: Exactly how the new FTC pursues tech, media and telecom issues will depend mostly on Simons. But with Facebook already under investigation, data security top of mind and the antitrust debate resurgent, those issues are sure to come up.

  • “My sense from their testimony, and just life, is that tech and the issues that are important to us will be prominent at the FTC,” said Dean Garfield, the president of the tech trade group ITI, adding, “I don’t expect more investigations of the companies necessarily.”
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