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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The backlash against giant tech companies is stressing the public institutions tasked with examining their power, as participants, observers and critics question whether regulators have the skill, will and authority to check corporate forces.

Why it matters: The machinery of antitrust regulation will process the broader conversation about tech's role in society through the mill of American politics and law — and some wonder whether it's up to the task.

Driving the news:

  • The Federal Trade Commission’s investigations into alleged privacy violations at Facebook and YouTube have raised questions about whether it has the authority it needs to police privacy in the era of aggressive online data collection. Some legislators and observers criticized the FTC’s proposed settlement with Facebook last month for multiple consumer privacy issues as weak, given the scale of Facebook’s revenues.
  • Broad reviews at the FTC and DOJ of the market power of major tech platforms like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple may put to the test the agencies’ ability to rein in alleged monopolies using decades-old legal doctrine and century-old laws.
  • The Department of Justice’s decision to approve T-Mobile’s merger with Sprint, as long as Dish created a fourth-major wireless carrier, was seen by critics as inadequate to protect competition in the wireless sector.

Context: Regulators are grappling with a moment where people across the political spectrum are increasingly distrustful of large tech corporations and the men and women they’ve turned into billionaires.

  • Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has risen in the polls attacking a corrupt culture in Washington that benefits megacorporations and the rich.
  • Even the right is no longer driven by purely deregulatory impulses. A vocal and influential part of President Trump’s base is more open to cracking down on large online platforms than the libertarians who have traditionally driven tech policy among conservatives in Washington.

Flashback: Earlier this month, a White House draft plan surfaced that would, per CNN, narrow the shield protecting platforms from liability for users’ content.

  • The plan would throw the Federal Communications Commission into a hot political debate over political bias online by asking it to serve as arbiter of the key legal protections for vast online platforms, although it's unclear if that would be within the agency's legal authority.

The big questions:

  1. Are these agencies up to the task of policing the industry?
  2. For those who believe they are not, what should Congress do about that?

What they’re saying: Some lawmakers have raised the prospect over the past year of either giving the regulators more power — or reorganizing the whole system.

  • “If we need to reassign jurisdiction away from the FTC and give it to an agency that’s better suited to enforcement, then maybe we should do that,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said last month before the agency’s settlement with Facebook was announced. “You look at their history of frankly dilatory or non-enforcement, it makes me wonder if they are better suited to an oversight role and not very well suited to an antitrust enforcement role.”
  • Officials at the Federal Trade Commission have told Congress they would welcome a new national privacy law that gives them more power.
  • And activists have said that the predominant view in antitrust law that monopoly cases should hinge on whether consumers have been harmed, often in terms of a price increase — which can make it hard to go after a free service like Facebook or Google — is outdated.

Yes, but: The FTC has said it is doing the most it can do with the powers Congress has granted it, and the leader of the Department of Justice's antitrust division said last year that "there are serious risks to democracy in abandoning" the current standard.

What's next: The 2020 presidential election is likely to put corporate power — from tech to healthcare — in the spotlight.

Go deeper

Biden will reverse Trump's attempt to lift COVID-related travel restrictions

Photo: Tasos Katopodis via Getty

The incoming Biden administration will reverse President Trump's last-minute order to lift COVID-19 related travel restrictions, Jen Psaki, the incoming White House press secretary, tweeted.

Why it matters: President Trump ordered entry bans lifted for travelers from the U.K., Ireland, Brazil and much of Europe to go into effect Jan. 26, but the Biden administration will "strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19," Jen Psaki said. Biden will be inaugurated on Wednesday, Jan. 20 and Trump will no longer be president by the time the order is set to go into effect.

Dominion sends cease and desist letter to My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell

Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Dominion Voting Systems on Monday sent a cease and desist letter to My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell over his spread of misinformation related to the 2020 election.

Why it matters: Trump and several of his allies have pushed false conspiracy theories about the company, leading Dominion to take legal action. It's suing pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell for defamation and $1.3 billion in damages, and a Dominion employee has sued Trump himself, OANN and Newsmax.

Off the Rails

Episode 5: The secret CIA plan

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer, Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 5: Trump vs. Gina — The president becomes increasingly rash and devises a plan to tamper with the nation's intelligence command.

In his final weeks in office, after losing the election to Joe Biden, President Donald Trump embarked on a vengeful exit strategy that included a hasty and ill-thought-out plan to jam up CIA Director Gina Haspel by firing her top deputy and replacing him with a protege of Republican Congressman Devin Nunes.