Politics

This is the future of the FTC

President Joe Biden has named Becca Slaughter acting chair of the FTC. In conversation with Protocol, she laid out her priorities for the next four years.

This is the future of the FTC

FTC commissioner Becca Slaughter may be President Biden's pick for FTC chair.

Photo: David Becker/Getty Images

Becca Slaughter made a name for herself last year when, as a commissioner for the Federal Trade Commission, she breastfed her newborn baby during video testimony before the Senate, raising awareness about the plight of working parents during the pandemic.

But on Thursday, Slaughter's name began circulating for other reasons: She was just named as President Joe Biden's pick for acting chair of the FTC, an appointment that puts Slaughter at the head of antitrust investigations into tech giants, including Facebook.

Just days before Biden announced his pick, Slaughter took some time to speak at a Protocol event about the FTC's Facebook case, how antitrust enforcement can be "anti-racist" and what she hopes to see the FTC prioritize these next four years. Now that she's in charge, those priorities matter more than ever.

This interview has been lightly edited.

It's indisputable that in the last few weeks since the Capitol riot, we've seen tech giants from Facebook to Amazon taking more action on dangerous speech on their platforms than ever before. Everyone's talking about regulation, but obviously any government regulation having to do with speech is a really dicey area. What do you anticipate the Biden administration's approach will be to this, and what are the appropriate legislative and regulatory remedies here?

I can't speak to the president's plans, but I do think what we're seeing is, on the one hand, eminently appropriate action being taken by the companies to stop violence. I am concerned as a citizen that that actually came too late, and it might have been much better taken much earlier. But at the same time, we're seeing really important questions surface about the fact that those decisions are lying in the hands of private companies with enormous market power. The decisions can be correct, while at the same time, we can take a step back and say: What does this tell us about the state of our markets that these really important conversations and decisions are governed entirely by individual companies with enormous market share?

What are some ways the FTC, in particular, can respond to that?

Within our mandate is antitrust law. One thing I've found really interesting is a lot of the voices that are decrying the actions of the platforms to remove some of this dangerous content are the same ones who resist government antitrust intervention. I think we have to be mindful of the fact that we have laws in place, and we need to be vigorously enforcing those laws that address outsized market share. The FTC has at least one big lawsuit pending on this topic. Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser is leading another one. We will continue to do investigations and bring cases that address misuse of market power under our antitrust laws.

You mentioned the FTC case against Facebook. When you brought that suit, and a number of states brought a similar suit, Facebook responded by saying the FTC is looking at all of these past mergers and setting a standard where no company that had a merger settled in the past can be sure it will be permanent. What is your response to that criticism from Facebook?

I don't find it particularly persuasive. That we've brought one lawsuit that seeks to address two, among many, mergers that happened as part of an ongoing course of conduct does not suggest all mergers in all industries for all companies are forever in legal uncertainty. That is beyond a stretch.

What we have to do, as enforcers, and what we do in this case, is look at the particular facts at issue and the particular conduct at issue. And it is the case under the law that when the FTC or the Department of Justice review mergers in advance, we don't clear mergers. We don't approve mergers in advance. What we have an opportunity to do is to say: At this moment, are we going to take effort to block the merger? And in fact, in the occasions where we do the investigations and decline to take effort, we don't say we will never take action. We say: Right now, we're not going to take action, but that does not mean if we later understand this conduct to have been illegal we are precluded from bringing a suit.

So that should be a disincentive to companies to enter into conduct, whether it's mergers or other conduct, that's illegal. That's what we want to disincentivize, and the threat of future lawsuits is an important part of that incentive structure.

Beyond the Facebook suit, what do you think the priority of this FTC ought to be, and are there any big mistakes over the last four years that need to be corrected?

Well, I can tell you what my priorities are. First, I think we do need to be thinking, like everyone across the government is right now, about pandemic response. COVID touches on a lot of areas of the FTC's mandate. There are some obvious ones, like work we've done to stop scams and phony cures, but some that are less obvious, including thinking about the effects of market concentration on, for example, supply chain resiliency. I think we need to be thinking about how all of our lives have moved digitally and the implications that has for privacy and data issues.

The second thing I would say is a huge priority for me has been making sure that our enforcement efforts continue and sharpen in our long, arduous and very large national task of being anti-racist. So I want us to be, in our enforcement efforts on marginalized communities, focusing on cases where harm disproportionately falls on people of color, whether that is as workers or as consumers.

The third, generally, is I think we need to focus on being really strategic with the resources that we have. That means bringing cases that have big effects and can create deterrence across markets, rather than counting how many cases we bring or how many dollars we get. I want us to think very carefully about how each federal dollar we spend can best effectuate deterrence so we don't have to spend more federal dollars bringing the same sort of cases.

To the extent that I think there are things we could have done better over the last four years, there are a number of cases where I had dissented, because I thought that our resolutions, while they were good enforcement resolutions, didn't go far enough on that deterrence front. I'm concerned that we're going to end up back at the table with the same companies with the same problems if we are not bringing cases and really fighting for the outcome that will best protect consumers from having the same problems again.

I want to go back to what you said about the anti-racism work. Can you give us an example of that?

We brought a really important case under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act last year involving auto financing for violations of fair lending rules and discriminatory behavior on financing. That's one kind of case. This is something we're very comfortable talking about in the consumer protection sphere. We are less comfortable talking about it as a general matter in the antitrust space. But for me, antitrust enforcement is fundamentally about market structure and making sure markets are fair. And one thing we know statistically is that our markets are currently structured in a way that is unfair and unequal for communities of color. So when we make decisions to do enforcement in certain places or not do enforcement in certain places, those decisions are never neutral. They will either help make our society less unequal or they will reinforce existing inequality.

So the first step for us, from my perspective, is just opening our eyes and understanding the effects of those decisions better. When we choose to bring a case — let's say, for example, a hospital enforcement case, because health care is an area where we know there are huge disparities in access and outcomes across races — we [should bring] cases that improve access, improve quality of care and reduce costs, particularly when the populations being served are communities of color. That's a big thing that we can do, and we already do, to help make our markets more anti-racist.

I would rather that we be honest and transparent about the effect our actions have and think about those decisions seriously, because we don't have the resources or the capacity to enforce all the violations of the law in all the markets. When we set priorities, for me, the priority has to include helping historically disadvantaged and marginalized communities where we need to equalize our society more effectively.

Where do you see the role of the FTC when it comes to mitigating algorithmic bias?

I think we do need a multi-stakeholder process. I think the FTC is one of the interested stakeholders that should be involved. I also think we need to be critically examining the toolbox we have and thinking creatively about how we can use all the tools in it to address this issue. This is something I spoke about and wrote about a year ago. For me, algorithmic bias is an economic justice issue. We see disparate outcomes coming out of algorithmic decision-making that disproportionately affect and harm Black and brown communities and affect their ability to participate equally in society. That's something we need to address, and we need to think about whether it fits under our unfairness framework, whether we might have rule-making authority that could apply to it or whether we use statutes like the Equal Credit Opportunity Act or the Fair Credit Reporting Act. But I think it's one of those things where really good, creative thinking needs to be applied.

The issue is new, and it is hard. But one thing I remind myself all the time: My older daughter, who is in Zoom school downstairs in my house right now and hates it, she was in kindergarten last year, and her teacher would say to her all the time, "Kindergarteners can do hard things." And I say to myself: "OK, well if kindergarteners can do hard things, the FTC can do hard things. Government can do hard things, and we have to start trying to tackle the big problems."

Update: This article was updated Jan. 21, 2021, to include that Slaughter was named acting chair.

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