FTC creates antitrust task force to monitor tech industry

The field of technology and the business practices within it tend to advance faster than regulators can keep up. But the FTC is making a concerted effort with a new 17-lawyer tech task force dedicated to ensuring “free and fair competition” and watching for anticompetitive conduct among technology companies.

This isn’t necessarily a precursor to some big action like breaking up a big company or imposing rules or anything like that. It seems to be more a recognition that the FTC needs to be ready to ascertain quickly and move decisively in tech matters, and a crack team of tech-savvy staff attorneys is the way to do it.

The Technology Task Force will live under the competition bureau within the FTC, the director of which, Bruce Hoffman, commented as follows in the agency’s announcement:

Technology markets, which are rapidly evolving and touch so many other sectors of the economy, raise distinct challenges for antitrust enforcement. By centralizing our expertise and attention, the new task force will be able to focus on these markets exclusively – ensuring they are operating pursuant to the antitrust laws, and taking action where they are not.

That it is under this bureau and not the bureau of consumer protection gives a good indicator of its purpose. This won’t be a way for the FTC to, for instance, more closely scrutinize Google or Facebook’s shady user data practices. That said, the lawyers are stated to have expertise in “advertising, social networking, mobile operating systems and apps, and platform businesses,” which I doubt they mention for no reason.

Instead it is likely to be more focused on investigating and reporting on potential anticompetitive practices that are the potential result of M&A deals or quasi-monopolies like Amazon and Facebook. The fascinating Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox paper from a while back noted all kinds of ways that a company slips through loopholes while performing actions that look, walk and talk like monopolistic ones.

But just what exactly constitutes such practices legally speaking is a matter of considerable debate. No doubt the lawyers and their tech fellows, with whom they will consult, will spend a great deal of time sifting through old cases and precedents and seeing what does and doesn’t apply. The team will be performing its own investigations of ongoing and completed mergers, and will also supply investigative services to other branches of the agency.

Essentially it’s an indication that the FTC will be taking tech antitrust more seriously going forward, and dedicating more and better organized resources to the task of monitoring the sector. That’s probably not the kind of thing big tech companies like to hear.

I’ve asked the agency some questions as far as markets they’ll be watching, behaviors they’re looking for and so on. I’ll update this post if I hear back.