FTC Kicks Off Hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century

Antitrust policy, once relegated to wonk status, has taken center stage in recent years: it seems as if each day there is a new debate over the need – or lack thereof – for more robust competition enforcement in today’s economy. In the past few weeks alone, competition law and big tech have been in the spotlight in both a call to reopen a Federal Trade Commission (“FTC” or “Commission”) investigation into Google and a forthcoming meeting among Attorney General Jeff Sessions, state Attorneys General investigating social media companies and a representative from the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (“DOJ”).

The FTC jumped into the fray on September 13, 2018 when it kicked off its hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century, which had been announced earlier this year. The purpose of the hearings is to utilize the agency’s Section 6 authority “to consider whether broad-based changes in the economy, evolving business practices, new technologies, or international developments might require adjustments to competition and consumer protection law, enforcement priorities, and policy.” Among the announced topics are issues that have dominated the news lately, including: competition in technology markets, particularly those featuring two-sided “platform” businesses (ones that cannot make a sale to one side of the market without simultaneously making a sale to the other); the intersection of privacy, data and competition; evaluating the competitive effects of vertical mergers (those that join firms at different levels of the supply chain, e.g., the AT&T-Time Warner deal challenged unsuccessfully by DOJ); and the consumer welfare standard, which has served as the economic principle guiding antitrust enforcement since the 1980s. The FTC has accepted more than 500 public comments on 20 announced topics and continues to invite public comment in advance of specific hearing sessions.

Commission Chairman Joe Simons set the stage for the opening session by highlighting the combination of increased economic concentration and decreased antitrust enforcement that has generated calls to reassess the very nature of antitrust policy, noting that he is approaching the discussions “with a very open mind.”

The panel discussions that followed the opening session focused on the current landscape of competition and consumer protection law and policy, concentration and competitiveness in the U.S. economy, and the regulation of consumer data. Key takeaways so far include:

  • The Commission is eager to set competition enforcement priorities. Tech companies appear to be in the crosshairs.
  • Although there is growing concern about increased concentration in the economy, there is no consensus that big equates to bad. While some panelists cited data linking concentration to income inequality and reduced innovation, others cautioned that protecting less efficient businesses in the name of competition is misguided.
  • Effective privacy and data breach enforcement likely require new, modern tools both for detection and regulation. The FTC’s consumer protection mission likely will need to account for changes in federal legislation and/or voluntary rules established by the tech industry.

Videos of past hearing sessions are available online, along with public comments and additional information.

The FTC’s end goal is to produce one or more policy papers, patterned after the fruits of the 1995 hearings hosted by then-FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky. Those hearings, which focused on global competition and innovation, led to two staff reports on competition and consumer protection policy “in the new high-tech, global marketplace” and helped pave the way for U.S. agency actions blocking mergers primarily based on harms to innovation. The Commission once again is revisiting its approach.

In the interim, stay tuned for additional updates as the hearings continue.