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.

Hollywood averted its first streaming strike with an 11th-hour deal

IATSE's 60,000 members threatened to strike for better working conditions; at the core of the conflict was Hollywood's move to streaming.

60,000 Hollywood workers are set to go on strike this week.

Photo: Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The union representing 60,000 studio workers struck an agreement with major studios and production companies.

A last-minute agreement between the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) helped avert a strike that would have shut down Hollywood: The two sides agreed on a new contract that includes pay raises as well as improved break schedules, Deadline reported Saturday evening.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

The way we work has fundamentally changed. COVID-19 upended business dealings and office work processes, putting into hyperdrive a move towards digital collaboration platforms that allow teams to streamline processes and communicate from anywhere. According to the International Data Corporation, the revenue for worldwide collaboration applications increased 32.9 percent from 2019 to 2020, reaching $22.6 billion; it's expected to become a $50.7 billion industry by 2025.

"While consumers and early adopter businesses had widely embraced collaborative applications prior to the pandemic, the market saw five years' worth of new users in the first six months of 2020," said Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and collaboration at IDC. "This has cemented collaboration, at least to some extent, for every business, large and small."

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Silver

Kate Silver is an award-winning reporter and editor with 15-plus years of journalism experience. Based in Chicago, she specializes in feature and business reporting. Kate's reporting has appeared in the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic's CityLab, Atlas Obscura, The Telegraph and many other outlets.

Protocol | Workplace

Instacart workers are on strike. How far can it get them?

Instacart activists want a nationwide strike to start today, but many workers are too afraid of the company and feel they can't afford a day off of work.

Gig workers protest in front of an Amazon facility in 2020.

Photo: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Starting today, an Instacart organizing group is asking the app's gig workers to go on a nationwide strike to demand better payment structures, benefits and other changes to the way the company treats its workers — but if past strikes are any indication, most Instacart users probably won't even notice.

The majority of Instacart workers on forums like Reddit and Facebook appear either unaware of the planned strike or don't plan to participate because they are skeptical of its power, afraid of retaliation from the company or are too reliant on what they do make from the app to be able to afford to take even one day off of the platform. "Not unless someone is going to pay my bills," "It will never work, you will never be able to get every shopper to organize" and "Last time there was a 'strike' Instacart took away our quality bonus pay," are just a few of the comments Instacart shoppers have left in response to news of the strike.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Protocol | China

WeChat promises to stop accessing users’ photo albums amid public outcry

A tech blogger claimed that popular Chinese apps snoop around users' photo libraries, provoking heightened public concerns over privacy.

A survey launched by Sina Tech shows 94% of the some 30,000 responding users said they are not comfortable with apps reading their photo libraries just to allow them to share images faster in chats.

Photo: S3studio via Getty Images

A Chinese tech blogger dropped a bombshell last Friday, claiming on Chinese media that he found that several popular Chinese apps, including the Tencent-owned chat apps WeChat and QQ, as well as the Alibaba-owned ecommerce app Taobao, frequently access iPhone users' photo albums in the background even when those apps are not in use.

The original Weibo post from the tech blogger, using the handle of @Hackl0us, provoked intense debates about user privacy on the Chinese internet and consequently prompted WeChat to announce that it would stop fetching users' photo album data in the background.

Keep Reading Show less
Shen Lu

Shen Lu is a reporter with Protocol | China. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New York Times and POLITICO, among other publications. She can be reached at shenlu@protocol.com.

Protocol | Enterprise

As businesses struggle with data, enterprise tech is cleaning up

Enterprise tech's vision of "big data" largely fell flat inside silos. But now, an army of providers think they've figured out the problems. And customers and investors are taking note.

Corporate data tends to settle in silos that makes it harder to understand the bigger picture. Enterprise tech vendors smell a lucrative opportunity.

Photo: Jim Witkowski/Unsplash

Data isn't the new oil; it's the new gold. And in any gold rush, the ones who make the most money in the long run are the tool makers and suppliers.

Enterprise tech vendors have long peddled a vision of corporate America centered around so-called "big data." But there was a big problem: Many of those projects failed to produce a return. An army of new providers think they've finally figured out the problem, and investors and customers are taking note.

Keep Reading Show less
Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Latest Stories