Critics Warn Biden's Antitrust Vacancies Threaten Vows to Rein in Big Tech

A sign for the Department of Justice is seen ahead of a news conference at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. on January 12, 2021. (Photo: Sarah Silbiger/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Critics Warn Biden's Antitrust Vacancies Threaten Vows to Rein in Big Tech

"DOJ Antitrust is run by people promoted under Trump/Barr!" said Jeff Hauser of the Revolving Door Project, which urged Biden to quickly name regulators "who will take on Big Tech monopolies."

President Joe Biden's failure to nominate top regulators at the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Justice Department's Antitrust Division has extended the influence of Trump-era officials at key federal agencies--undermining the effort to curb Big Tech's monopoly powers and prompting progressives to demand that Biden immediately fill these executive branch positions.

"If Biden doesn't move quickly, there won't be enough time left for his administration to take on big targets and tackle thorny policy problems," Axios reported Tuesday. Unlike other policy agendas, public oversight of the technology and telecom industries "will be largely shaped by the executive branch and regulatory agencies, rather than by a divided and distracted Congress."

Although the White House has immense power to establish antitrust policy, the Biden administration "has fallen months behind" its predecessors in naming new leaders of the FTC, the FCC, and the DOJ's Antitrust Division, Axios reported. The Revolving Door Project on Tuesday urged the president to quickly fill the posts with officials "who will take on Big Tech monopolies."

Axios, which compiled data on the previous four administrations' timelines for nominating permanent leaders of these key agencies, noted that "since the Clinton administration, March has been the most common month the president has sent nominations for these positions to Congress, starting the often lengthy confirmation process."

"It's now three months past that, with no indication that nominations are imminent," the news outlet added.

While Acting FTC Chairwoman Rebecca Slaughter and Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel are "getting things done" and "angling for the permanent jobs," Axios reported, "temporary agency leaders are not as empowered to pursue an aggressive policy agenda as permanent heads."

As Andrew Schwartzman, senior counselor at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, told the news outlet: "The absence of permanent appointees delays work on anything controversial, as the actings, properly, don't want to commit major resources to big projects that the permanent person wouldn't want."

The lack of permanent antitrust leadership at the federal agencies tasked with reining in the technology and telecom industries has coincided with a wave of corporate consolidation. In just the past two weeks, Amazon announced an $8.5 billion deal to acquire MGM Studios, and AT&T announced a $43 billion deal to merge WarnerMedia with Discovery, as Common Dreams reported.

Earlier this year, Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, and Andrea Munoz Beaty, a research assistant at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, pointed out that appointees of former President Donald Trump are "still setting the agenda at Biden's Antitrust Division" in the DOJ.

"The Antitrust Division needs acting Democratic leadership to point antitrust enforcement in the direction President Biden promised--taking on monopolies and economic concentration," the pair wrote in February. They added that:

There is a very real possibility that the Antitrust Division is not run by populist Democrats until fall. (Or ever, as we have warned, if Biden undercuts his commitments and chooses a Big Tech favorite.) Congressional Democrats like Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Rep. David Cicilline (R.I.) as well as the entire antitrust movement ought to pressure Biden and Garland to install immediately capable, energetic figures who can enforce the antitrust laws vigorously until Senate confirmed leadership is installed. We have a crisis of consolidation in this country, and waiting on timely Senate confirmation of a figure not yet nominated before beginning to take that crisis head on is indefensible.

Hauser on Tuesday stressed that the longer Biden delays, the longer the DOJ's Antitrust Division "is run by people promoted under" Trump and his Attorney General William Barr.

In addition, Hauser noted, Democrats remain in the minority at the FTC and the FCC even though, as the Revolving Door Project's Eleanor Eagan argued last month, Biden could have had Democratic majorities at those and other federal agencies within his first 100 days if the White House picked up the pace on nominations.

One day after the House Judiciary Committee in mid-April approved a 400-plus page report on monopoly power in digital marketplaces, a coalition of nearly 30 progressive advocacy groups--including corporate accountability, consumer protection, civil liberties, and civil rights organizations--called on Biden to check the power of Big Tech by appointing to federal agencies "leaders committed to enforcing our nation's antitrust laws to the fullest degree."

"This is a defining moment of our time, and the will of the American people is on our side. Nearly three in four Americans--including majorities of Democrats and Republicans alike--want stronger regulation of Big Tech platforms," the coalition wrote. "We urge you to deliver."

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