Technology

FTC Democrat raises concerns that government is 'captured' by large tech companies

Rohit Chopra, a Democrat on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), on Friday testified before a House panel that he is concerned the U.S. government is "too often captured" by the country's largest tech companies.

Chopra made the comments during a hearing about data privacy before the House Judiciary Committee's antitrust subcommittee, which has been investigating whether the top technology firms wield their power in the marketplace.

"All too often, the government is too captured by those incumbents that use their power to dictate their preferred policies," Chopra said, discussing his concerns around the unprecedented power and strength of Big Tech. He did not name any specific agency or company.

Chopra, a Democratic official who formerly helped Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in recent months has aggressively dissented to the FTC's record-breaking settlements with large tech companies including Facebook and Google's YouTube, claiming the agency is not using the full breadth of its authority to take on some of the most powerful companies in the world.

The House Judiciary Committee's antitrust panel is currently probing competition issues around Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. As part of that investigation, they are looking into whether Congress needs to modernize antitrust laws to better take on the digital marketplace, and if the regulatory agencies - including the FTC and Department of Justice - are properly enforcing the laws on the books. 

At the hearing, Chopra said he's concerned that the massive troves of data held by companies like Amazon and Facebook allow them to elbow out smaller players, harming competition and stinging small businesses.

"Under-enforcement [of antitrust] can really kill innovation and kill entry because when it's harder and harder to break in, that's just bad for small business and it's bad for all of us," he told lawmakers. 

This week, the antitrust subcommittee received the first tranche of documents it has requested as part of the investigation. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), the top Democrat on the panel, said it has received "tens of thousands" from the tech companies so far and will continue to seek more. 

The records the committee has requested include communications among executives and documents about the companies' various acquisitions of smaller businesses.

After the hearing, Cicilline told reporters that he shares Chopra's "serious" concerns about the influence of tech companies over the regulatory and legislative process. 

"I think there's great concern that the large technology companies have a disproportionate influence over the regulatory process," he said. "When you have these tremendous concentrations of economic power, it's followed by tremendous concentrations of political power." 

"I think that's something that we should look at," he said. 

The top Republican on the antitrust subcommittee, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (Wis.), struck a different tone during his opening remarks, calling on Congress and antitrust enforcers "to be careful not to overreach to extend or apply antitrust laws in ways that punish success, suppressing innovation and ultimately limiting consumer welfare." 

Chopra argued light-touch regulation can harm the markets. "While some believe that lax enforcement and absentee governments are the ingredients of innovation, history teaches us it's the opposite," he said.

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