It was reported this week that Noah Phillips, a Republican commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission, will step down in the fall. While Biden will presumably nominate his successor, tradition suggests he’ll defer to Senate Republicans — read: Mitch McConnell — for the pick. This gives the GOP an opportunity to turn the page on more than a decade of Big Tech appeasement by Republican FTC commissioners like Phillips and his predecessors.
The FTC’s historical record on Big Tech is abysmal, having rubber-stamped the anti-competitive acquisitions and predatory conduct that enabled tech platforms to become the monopolistic behemoths they are today. And conservatives increasingly believe, rightly, that their gripes with Big Tech, from censoring speech to bootlicking the Chinese Communist Party, are downstream of the companies’ market power — the absence of real competition enables bad behavior.
That’s why conservative organizations like my employer, American Principles Project, have worked with anti-monopolists from all across the political spectrum to back antitrust legislation that will empower the FTC and other bodies to check the power of these companies.
Last year, Republicans signaled their desire for change at the FTC when 21 senators crossed the aisle to vote to confirm Lina Khan as commissioner; she was then appointed to chair the agency by Biden. This rare display of bipartisanship was for one reason: Khan pledged to rein in Big Tech.
The FTC’s enforcement record when it comes to Big Tech has been awful for more than a decade. Between 2010 and 2019, Big Tech companies completed more than 600 transactions involving smaller companies, including anti-competitive takeovers of Instagram and WhatsApp. Particularly under the Obama administration, these takeovers were rubber-stamped by the FTC as a matter of course. In 2013, the FTC even closed an investigation into Google’s monopolistic power — a problem which was apparent then but has only become worse in the intervening years.
The Trump administration made some strides in antitrust enforcement, but the FTC’s record still leaves much to be desired. Consistent with Obama’s FTC’s failed policy framework, Trump’s FTC failed to block a single tech merger. Just a few weeks ago, Republican commissioners continued to vote against the first major Big Tech challenge. And now, reports are that the FTC is about to greenlight yet another tech merger, with Microsoft, the world’s second-largest company, seeking to acquire Activision, one of the largest video game companies.
On the last point, this is exactly the kind of merger where you’d expect to see bipartisan opposition. From the left’s perspective, this should be right up their alley as the supposed opponents of concentrated corporate power. As an added bonus, both companies have all sorts of woke fatwas out on them — the funniest being after Activision failed to grant enough a suitable amount of work-from-home days in response to employee demand after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. But apart from a sternly worded letter from four leftist senators, the outcry about the deal has been fairly muted.
From the right, you’d expect to see groups sounding the alarm about the growing dominance of Microsoft, a company whose track record on China is questionable at best — from blocking words like “Taiwan independence” to deplatforming a dissident Chinese journalist to censoring Bing search results for “Tank Man” on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. (The company claims the last example of censorship only took place due to “human error.” Color me skeptical.)
Given the company’s track record of appeasing China for monetary gain, conservatives should be worried about Microsoft achieving market dominance in gaming, a critical and growing industry in both the U.S. and China. Will video games be the next vector for Chinese censorship, or will they remain an avenue for free expression and American values?
But by and large, these concerns don’t come up, at least not publicly. Big Tech companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying out the organizations that work in this space. For example, at least one prominent left-leaning organization, Access Now, which has been outspoken in support of antitrust legislation (bills that notably largely spare Microsoft from any impact), has said nothing about the deal. Perhaps not coincidentally, the organization has received over a million dollars in donations from Microsoft over the years.
Are other groups who would normally oppose the deal similarly situated? It’s tough to know for sure. Unlike its Big Tech rivals Facebook and Google, Microsoft is not very transparent on this question.
These Big Tech companies know that their power is safe so long as they control the five-member board of the FTC. The sad truth is that they’ve had this control for most of the past few decades. If Republicans take power again, and especially if they win the presidency, they will have the opportunity to reshape the FTC by appointing people who are actually interested in enforcing the law rather than just granting Big Tech’s every request. But even now, the GOP has an exciting opportunity with choosing Phillips’ successor. Mitch McConnell needs to get this one right.
Jon Schweppe is the director of policy and government affairs at American Principles Project. Follow him on Twitter @JonSchweppe.