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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Federal Trade Commission this week kicks off the first broad examination of competition in the technology industry in more than two decades — a sign that the tech giants could be in for stronger public oversight.

Why it matters: The FTC's public hearings, which start Thursday, will provide the first structured conversation about realistic policy tools that federal regulators need to police the internet economy.

The Big Tech backlash has been driven by critics and issue-specific outrage. Over the course of several public hearings this fall, the FTC is taking the first steps toward crafting a basic framework to keep the tech companies from acting like monopolies.

The debate over the past year has focused on using antitrust measures to, for example, clamp down on the treasure troves of data controlled by Google, Facebook and Amazon — and to prevent them from getting any bigger with new acquisitions.

  • But antitrust law can only go so far in curbing anticompetitive behavior. And under the current administration — and an increasingly conservative Supreme Court — a broader reading of today's antitrust rules is highly unlikely.
  • By looking at realistic regulatory tools, the hearings will set the stage for how strictly the FTC will enforce its existing rules in the near future, and whether it will ask Congress for new authority.

Joe Simons, the relatively new FTC chairman, is seizing on the chance to say "let's take a deep breath, listen to some valid points, and have a constructive conversation," said a former FTC attorney. But the discussions run the risk of becoming politically charged in the current environment.

  • A common concern has been that the FTC and other agencies aren't equipped to deal with the unique internet economy. The FTC is likely to say it needs more resources to stay on top of the issues.
  • A study of how consumer data impacts competition, price and behavior is another possible outcome, sources say. The FTC's subpoena power allows it to gather confidential information about data use.
  • A year ago, calls for a sector-specific regulator to oversee the internet ecosystem seemed far-fetched. After data scandals and election interference, it's now beginning to look like a more reasonable idea.
  • Another topic may be updating vertical merger guidelines, which the Justice Department last updated in the 1980s.

The backstory: The last time the FTC held a series of public hearings on an issue was in 1995, when then-chairman Robert Pitofsky convened experts to discuss competition in still-nascent areas such as "marketing in cyberspace" and "interactive television." Those hearings culminated in a series of reports that recommended ways for the FTC to promote competition.

The bottom line: The ambition of this fall's hearings are to "chart a course forward in the same way," said a former FTC staffer. "I think they have the potential to set the agency on a path for the next decade."

Go deeper

Updated 7 hours ago - Sports

The potential GOAT of chess faces intriguing challenger

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The World Chess Championship between Norway's Magnus Carlsen and Russia's Ian Nepomniachtchi began on Friday, 1,094 days after Carlsen won his fourth consecutive title.

Why it matters: During the long, COVID-fueled layoff, chess entered a new era, and with the championship finally here, the age-old game is ready for its close-up.

Department of Interior proposes raising cost of drilling on public lands

A horizontal drilling rig and a pump jack sit on federal land in Lea County, New Mexico. Photo: Callaghan O'Hare/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Oil and gas companies should pay more to drill on federal lands and waters, the Department of the Interior argued in a report released Friday, saying that the current rates were "outdated."

Driving the news: The Department of Interior report said that the federal government's oil and gas leasing and permitting program "fails to provide a fair return to taxpayers, even before factoring in the resulting climate-related costs that must be borne by taxpayers."

8 hours ago - Health

U.S. to restrict air travel from 8 countries over new COVID variant concerns

A COVID-19 vaccine is administered. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The U.S. will impose new air travel restrictions in response to the Omicron variant, a new COVID strain first detected in South Africa, President Biden announced Friday.

The big picture: Air travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi will be restricted starting on Monday.