Blumenthal: Big Tech May Have to Get Smaller

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), chairman of the Consumer Protection Subcommittee, opened an oversight hearing on the Federal Trade Commission Tuesday (Nov. 27) by saying he wanted an update on its investigation of Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica info sharing issue, including when that investigation might wrap up and what penalties the social media giant might face.

Moran has been working with ranking member Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) on a bipartisan privacy bill to give the FTC more teeth and he said at the hearing he hoped that would be getting traction soon.

Big tech is no longer entitled to say "trust us," said Blumenthal, and is no longer entitled to that trust. Big tech may no longer be entitled to be as big as it is, he added ominously, pointing out that misuse of market power can violate antitrust laws. He said Facebook and Google can't be allowed to police themselves, and that it was time to end "this cycle of impugnity."

He said, at a minimum, privacy legislation should be as tough as California's privacy law and Europe's privacy framework. 

Blumenthal said the FTC has fallen short, because of a lack of resources as well as an apparent lack of will. He said the hearing was about whether the FTC was ready and willing to take on hard problems and "robustly" protect privacy.

Testifying before the committee was the full slate of commissioners: Chairman Joseph Simons and commissioners Rohit Chopra, Noah Joshua Phillips, Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, and Christine S. Wilson.

Currently legislators on both sides of the aisle are pondering whether and what additional resources—money and authority—the FTC needs to ensure online privacy and oversee network neutrality, the latter which the FCC deeded to it when it reclassified ISPs as an information service rather than a Title II common carrier service beyond the reach of the FTC.

The FTC lacks civil penalty authority and does not have jurisdiction over nonprofits as well as common carriers. It also lacks rulemaking authority and must regulate through suits, threatened suits, and settlements.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) outgoing ranking member of the committee, said he hoped the agency would get the funds it needed to try and police a $19 trillion economy and would continue to be a bipartisan body, contrasting that with the FCC, which he said often "gets mired in competing, individual ideological agendas."

Nelson has been a strong critic of the policies of current Republican Chairman Ajit Pai, including on network neutrality.

Blumenthal said Cambridge Analytica would never have happened if the FTC had more vigorously enforced an earlier consent decree with Facebook. He also said he was unhappy that there was not consequence to date for Facebook's catastrophic lack of protection over users' data.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.