GOP senator proposes overhauling federal agency to confront Big Tech

GOP senator proposes overhauling federal agency to confront Big Tech
© Greg Nash

Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyBipartisan senators call for investigation of TikTok's child privacy policies Trump signs order targeting social media firms' legal protections Trump to order review of law protecting social media firms after Twitter spat: report MORE (R-Mo.) in a proposal published Monday accused the country's top consumer protection agency — the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) — of failing to intervene as the world's most powerful tech companies amassed reams of personal information about their millions of U.S. users and gobbled up hundreds of smaller companies. 

In response, Hawley is proposing a total overhaul of the FTC, an effort to streamline and beef up the federal government's ability to take on large, valuable tech companies like Facebook and Google.

"It is time for Congress to overhaul the FTC and bring it into the 21st century," reads the plan published by Hawley's office

ADVERTISEMENT

The proposal says the FTC in its current structure "lacks teeth," has a "divided" jurisdiction, and "wastes time in turf wars with the Department of Justice (DOJ)."

"The agency as presently constituted is in no shape to ensure competition in today’s markets, let alone tomorrow’s," the proposal reads. 

Hawley's proposal would relocate the FTC to the DOJ, replace the five-member commission with a single director, and offer the agency a new set of tools to specifically take on Big Tech. 

The proposal marks the senator's most aggressive broadside against the FTC, a century-old agency that senators have accused of going easy on companies like Facebook and Google. The FTC levied record fines against both Facebook and Google this past year, but the fines barely made a dent in the companies' bottom lines. Critics have said the agency failed to require meaningful changes to tech companies' lucrative business practices. 

And the FTC's attempts to take on Big Tech have been bogged down by infighting. The FTC and DOJ, which are both tasked with enforcing the country's antitrust laws, announced they are investigating some of the tech industry's biggest companies for potentially abusing their dominant market position to squash competitors and take advantage of consumers, but FTC Chairman Joe Simons and Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim openly admitted during a congressional hearing last year that they are having trouble figuring out which agency will do what.

ADVERTISEMENT

"The FTC has proven lethargic, unwieldy, susceptible to agency capture, and prone to turf wars," Hawley's office wrote.

Hawley's proposal would attempt to resolve the tension by placing the FTC under the DOJ's jurisdiction and resolving "jurisdictional" overlap that has left the agencies fighting over how to enforce the nation's antitrust laws.

It would also create new safeguards around the FTC's "revolving door," which has allowed large tech companies to tap former FTC officials for help. 

"Congress should consider whether a two-year ban on working for or representing any company with more than $30 billion in annual revenue is an appropriate balance," the proposal reads.

The proposal comes as some Democratic lawmakers have proposed establishing an entirely new federal agency designed to take on Big Tech. A bill introduced by Silicon Valley lawmakers Reps. Anna EshooAnna Georges EshooHillicon Valley: Senate votes to reauthorize intel programs with added protections | ACLU calls on House to block warrantless web browsing surveillance | Dems introduce COVID-19 privacy bill Democrats introduce coronavirus-focused privacy legislation Hillicon Valley: Experts raise security concerns about online voting | Musk finds supporter in Trump | Officials warn that Chinese hackers targeting COVID-19 research groups MORE (D-Calif.) and Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation Hillicon Valley: Trump signs order targeting social media legal protections | House requests conference with Senate after FISA vote canceled | Minneapolis systems temporarily brought down by hackers House punts on FISA, votes to begin negotiations with Senate MORE (D-Calif.) would create a federal agency to protect users' privacy rights. 

But Hawley has poured cold water on that idea before, and in the proposal on Monday raised concerns about "agency capture." 

"For too long our nation has put off accounting for the price we paid in return for the benefits of the online platforms that now dominate American culture and industry," Hawley said. 

Hawley's office told The Hill the senator will propose legislation similar to the proposal in the coming weeks.