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Nominee for FTC chairman signals scrutiny for tech giants

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Joseph Simons, President Trump’s nominee for Federal Trade Commission chairman, speaks before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee during a confirmation hearing in Washington on Feb. 14. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

President Trump’s nominee to lead one of the nation’s top consumer watchdog agencies suggested to Congress on Wednesday that Silicon Valley may draw scrutiny for potential antitrust violations under his tenure, which could challenge the growing influence of the country’s dominant tech platforms.

During a confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, Joseph Simons, a corporate antitrust lawyer and the president’s choice to lead the Federal Trade Commission, said he would prioritize consumer protection issues “where harm is the greatest,” that would garner the “biggest bang for taxpayer dollar.”

“Oftentimes companies get big because they are successful with the consumer, they offer a good service at a low price. And that’s a good thing, and we don’t want to interfere with that,” Simons said when asked on his views of antitrust concerns in Silicon Valley. “On the other hand, companies that are already big and influential can sometimes use inappropriate means, anticompetitive means to get big or to stay big. And if that’s the case then we should be vigorously enforcing the antitrust laws.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) cited a news report that emphasized the breadth of Facebook and Google’s business operations. “The scope of market power, and size, and control of public discourse is unprecedented,” he said. “How should the commission approach this development?” he asked.

“The place most likely to have antitrust problems are places that have market power,” Simons said. “Those are the places you want to look the most.”

Simon’s statement comes at a time when some in Washington have focused on the rapid ascendance and growing power of tech platforms.

Charged with protecting consumers and promoting competition across a wide variety of industries, the FTC plays a crucial role in policing corporate abuse and deception. At full force, five commissioners lead the agency, but there are three vacancies. The two sitting commissioners are also expected to step down soon. At Wednesday’s hearing, Simons was joined by nominees for three of the commissioner positions. They include Christine Wilson, a vice president at Delta Air Lines; Rohit Chopra, a fellow at the consumer group at the Consumer Federation of America; and Noah Phillips, chief counsel to Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. The nominees appeared to sail through the hearing.

“We hope to move very quickly your nominations to the floor. It’s important that we get those important seats on the commission filled,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the committee.

In recent years, the FTC has begun to grapple with pressing issues in the tech sector, most notably privacy violations and data breaches. Some senators suggested the agency should more forcefully address the rise of powerful tech platforms that control massive troves of granular data and compete across a multitude of markets.

Several senators also asked about the Equifax data breach and whether the FTC can aggressively pursue companies that fail to protect consumer’s sensitive information. Simons said he would seek new ways to deter security lapses and boost incentives to guard consumer data, including seeking the authority to impose civil penalties on negligent companies. In a separate issue, Simons said he would create a task force to monitor drug pricing, to stamp out anticompetitive conduct in health care.

The committee expects to vote on the nominees in the next few weeks.

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