FTC's Simons: Privacy Could Be Antitrust Weapon Against Edge

Federal Trade Commission Chairman Joseph Simons has assured Congress that its review of how the antitrust laws should apply to high-tech conduct is not a one-off task force, but a new litigation division ready to pursue anticompetitive conduct by the edge, including getting at digital platforms through their impact on privacy.

He made it clear that antitrust issues are raised not only by pricing but by reductions in product quality, which could include privacy, he said.

That came at a budget hearing in the Senate Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee May 7 and after questions have been raised about the possible need for a new antitrust approach to social media, whose cost to the consumer may seem to be zero, but is in fact in data privacy and control.

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Subcommittee chairman Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) pointed out that there has been some debate over whether edge providers have avoided antitrust scrutiny over their conduct and growth through acquisitions because as a free service there are not issues with pricing and that perhaps the FTC has not been sufficiently attuned to other consumer harms other than raising prices.

Simons said the FTC's new high-tech antitrust task force, which is part of the bureau of competition, is not temporary, but is basically another litigation division in that bureau. He said its mission was to focus on high tech, particularly digital platforms, looking at both transactions and conduct.

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He said he expected the division would be bringing cases, which would just continue if and when it found more such cases.

Kennedy wanted to know when such cases against digital platforms might be coming, but then adjusted the question to when Congress would know what the FTC's policy toward edge providers and antitrust would be.

Simons said antitrust policy was irrespective of the task force, which is to "stop anticompetitive conduct and anticompetive mergers that either result in price increases, reductions in product quality, which would include privacy, and reductions in innovation. 

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.