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As reported this morning by Politico, almost 30 groups sent a letter to President Joe Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland calling for strong antitrust leaders to fill key roles at the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice.
This comes in the wake of recently leaked FTC files showing the mismanagement of an investigation into Google between 2011-2013, highlighting the need for leaders in antitrust positions who will hold Big Tech accountable.
The letter was organized by Demand Progress, and includes key progressive organizations like American Economic Liberties Project, Democracy for America, Our Revolution, People's Action, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Revolving Door Project, and Social Security Works.
Below is the text of the letter. It is also available online here with footnotes. Please let me know if you are interested in discussing. -- Maria
March 23, 2021
To President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and Attorney General Merrick B. Garland:
We write to you as a broad coalition of organizations committed to ensuring that corporate giants engaging in anti-competitive behavior are held accountable by the federal government. As you know, recent reporting by Politico as part of a series titled the "Google Files" has shed light on the degree to which the business model of Google, a Big Tech giant currently the subject of multiple federal and state-level antitrust lawsuits, is rooted in anti-competitive practices and how the government has failed in the past to take on this behavior adequately.
By obtaining 312 pages of internal memos circulated within the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) during its investigation of Google in 2012, Politico has helped reveal the extent to which the FTC lacked leadership in that era and failed to grasp the threat to open markets posed by the company. The FTC reneged on its duty to hold the company accountable for its anti-competitive behavior, and nearly a decade later both consumers and smaller competitors alike have paid the price. These revelations further stress the need for strong antitrust enforcement at both the FTC and other federal bodies, namely the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice.
Page 14 of the Google Files further corroborates what has long been alleged by anti-monopoly advocates: that one of the ways Google is able to retain its monopoly position in the search engine market is through anti-competitive contracts preventing the installation of rival search engines. Indeed, the documents found that Google had likely aspired to engage in similar anti-competitive practices to protect the company's search advertising business as early as 2012. Per the documents, Andrew E. (Andy) Rubin, then a top Google executive, openly boasted about the company's practice of entering into anti-competitive exclusivity agreements, stating in plain terms that it allows for the company to "own the US market".
Furthermore, the leaked documents confirm widely-held suspicions that Google's practice of reprogramming its search engine has been done to unfairly elevate Google products at the expense of competitors and consumers, rather than to tailor search results more effectively to consumers as the company has long claimed. According to the documents, "Google initially sought to demote all comparison shopping sites" through reformulating its algorithm in 2007. The corporate giant would seek further reformulation of its algorithm to the detriment of competitors over following years. One change to its algorithm in 2011 had consequences so drastic and detrimental to merchants that fellow corporate giant Amazon reported a 35% loss in traffic from comparison-shopping websites, according to information it provided to the FTC.
Per the documents, both Amazon and fellow Big Tech company Facebook privately complained to the FTC that Google's anti-competitive business model hurt their own bottom line. As Politico reported, "Amazon was already the most successful online retailer in 2012, though it posted a loss of $39 million for the year because of heavy investments to help launch its new Kindle Fire tablet. Facebook went public in 2012 and was emerging as a key challenger to Google in online advertising." Representatives from Facebook privately shared their concern with FTC officials that Google would enter into anti-competitive contracts with mobile carriers to mandate the installation of social media service Google+ on their platforms. Given that the company has effectively forced carriers to enter into similar clauses to elevate other Google products, this fear was clearly warranted.
Through the Google Files, competition advocates have been further vindicated in their long-standing belief that Big Tech companies like Google have engaged brazenly in activities detrimental to open markets. Perhaps more importantly, however, the Google Files have shown the degree to which many federal officials were unprepared to meet the challenge of holding anti-competitive corporate giants accountable. Leaked internal memos displayed poor judgement by these officials, who wrongly predicted that Google's targeted advertising policies showed only "little potential for growth," something that has been proven false in the decade since.
FTC officials additionally argued that search consumption would remain mostly conducted on computers, thereby dismissing the need to stop Google's from mandating its search engine on mobile devices. As noted by Politico, "[t]oday, about 62 percent of those queries take place on mobile phones and tablets, nearly all of which use Google's search engine as the default." Furthermore, these documents show that FTC officials wrongfully anticipated competition to Google in the smartphone software market in addition to generally underestimating Google's market share. It's clear that the ability of Big Tech giants like Google to acquire monopoly power has been abetted by the leadership deficit at top enforcement agencies such as the FTC.
Consumers and smaller technology companies alike have borne the brunt of the failure of FTC leadership to hold Google accountable in 2012. As such, the federal government needs to strengthen its approach to combating anti-competitive practices, and this necessitates a clean break from past leadership of agencies like the FTC in favor of strong advocates of antitrust enforcement. As the Administration considers nominees for vital antitrust positions, such as the post of Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division or for appointments to the FTC, it is crucial that it elevates people with strong track records of standing up to big corporations and Big Tech. This means eschewing individuals with backgrounds like former FTC Chair Jonathan D. (Jon) Leibowitz, who served as a corporate lobbyist prior to his appointment and has pushed for relaxing internet privacy laws since leaving the agency. The fact that many alumni of the FTC previously tasked with oversight of Big Tech have since joined the industry further stresses the need for a new approach to the personnel selection process. We need a break from past, failed leadership, and we need it now.
18 Million Rising
Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE)
American Economic Liberties Project
Center for Biological Diversity
Climate Hawks Vote
Demand Progress Education Fund
Democracy for America
Fight for the Future
Friends of the Earth U.S.
Jobs with Justice
Liberation in a Generation
Oil Change U.S.
Progressive Change Campaign Committee
Revolving Door Project
Social Security Works
The Freedom BLOC
United for Respect
Demand Progress amplifies the voice of the people -- and wields it to make government accountable and contest concentrated corporate power. Our mission is to protect the democratic character of the internet -- and wield it to contest concentrated corporate power and hold government accountable.
"Forty-five million people with student loan debt will never forget when politicians, led by Republican extremists, went out of their way to push millions of working families, including their own constituents, into economic catastrophe," said one advocate.
Economic justice advocates cried foul Thursday after the U.S. Senate passed legislation that aims to block President Joe Biden's pending student debt cancellation plan and reverse already-delivered relief.
Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Jon Tester (Mont.), along with right-wing Independent Sen. Krysten Sinema (Ariz.), joined Senate Republicans in supporting H.J. Res. 45.
The Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution, which House Republicans approved last week with the help of Democratic Reps. Jared Golden (Maine) and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (Wash.), passed the Senate by a margin of 52-46. Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.) and Mark Warner (Va.) didn't vote. The White House has vowed to veto the measure.
Passage of the legislation elicited a firestorm of criticism from progressive advocates and lawmakers.
"Forty-five million people with student loan debt will never forget when politicians, led by Republican extremists, went out of their way to push millions of working families, including their own constituents, into economic catastrophe by passing this reckless CRA resolution," Student Borrower Protection Center (SBPC) executive director Mike Pierce said in a statement.
"The American people are watching and expect President Biden to keep his promise to veto this horrendous bill."
The Biden administration's popular move to erase up to $20,000 in student debt for millions of federal borrowers with individual incomes below $125,000 and to improve the income-driven repayment (IDR) program is currently on hold as the U.S. Supreme Court considers a pair of deeply flawed legal challenges. A decision in the case is expected sometime this month, but right-wing lawmakers are doing everything in their power to sink the president's relief initiative regardless of how the high court rules.
Last week, the SBPC and the American Federation of Teachers warned of the "ruinous impact" H.J. Res. 45 would have on millions of working-class households nationwide, with AFT president Randi Weingarten condemning it as "an immoral clawback of the absolute worst kind."
In addition to blocking the potential cancellation of up to $20,000 in student debt per eligible borrower as well as money-saving changes to the IDR program, the CRA resolution would nullify the seventh and possibly eighth extensions of the federal student loan payment freeze first enacted by President Donald Trump in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, it would retroactively undo several months of already-canceled payments and waived interest charges, immediately leaving tens of millions of people past due on their loans.
Furthermore, the CRA resolution seeks to reinstate the student debt of more than 260,000 public service workers whose loan balances have been wiped clean since September 2022. If that were to happen, a combined debt burden of nearly $20 billion, which amounts to more than $72,000 per person, would be put back on the shoulders of teachers, nurses, first responders, and others who recently finished making 10 years of qualifying payments under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program that was enacted on a bipartisan basis in 2007 and streamlined by the Biden administration in 2021.
"Despite right-wing proponents' attempts to gaslight their own colleagues and the American people on the impact of this bill, this effort would push hundreds of thousands of public service workers back into debt and require the government to charge tens of millions of borrowers for interest that has already been canceled," said Pierce. "If enacted, it will cause irreparable damage to an already severely broken student loan system and undermine Americans' trust in our government."
"Today's vote makes crystal clear exactly who stood up and fought to protect the economic livelihoods of millions of people with student loan debt—and who schemed to keep them drowning in the debt despair of our nation's student loan crisis," he added. "The American people are watching and expect President Biden to keep his promise to veto this horrendous bill and deliver on his promise of student loan debt relief once and for all."
\u201cRepublicans in the Senate + Dem Senators Manchin, Sinema and Tester just voted to kill student debt relief and *raise* student debt balances by retroactively adding interest.\n\nTester, Sinema and Manchin are all up for re-election in 2024 and will have to explain their votes.\u201d— The Debt Collective \ud83d\udfe5 (@The Debt Collective \ud83d\udfe5) 1685644460
Ahead of a Wednesday vote to bring H.J. Res. 45 to the Senate floor, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said that "Republicans in Congress have shown time and time again that they'd much rather deliver relief to giant corporations and protect tax cheats than help working Americans whose biggest sin was trying to get an education."
On Thursday, the Massachusetts lawmaker called the bill's passage "shameful," and expressed confidence that Biden "will veto" it. Congress doesn't appear to have the two-thirds majority in each chamber needed to override a veto.
\u201cSenate Republicans just voted to block @POTUS' student debt relief plan, force millions to immediately pay back paused student loans & claw back relief from public servants. It's shameful. Thankfully we have President Biden who cares about working people & will veto this.\u201d— Elizabeth Warren (@Elizabeth Warren) 1685644466
Ahead of Thursday's vote, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a senior member and former chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, stressed that "this Republican bill wouldn't only rip away relief for borrowers who qualify under the president's plan."
"This CRA could impact the pause on loan payments and cause major problems for borrowers who have received relief through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness and income-driven repayment programs," Murray continued. "That means these Republican efforts could create the perfect storm for more than 260,000 public service workers who have already earned relief."
"Today's vote makes crystal clear exactly who stood up and fought to protect the economic livelihoods of millions of people with student loan debt—and who schemed to keep them drowning."
"If Republicans were to get their way and pass this bill into law," she added, "people across the country would have relief they are counting on snatched away from them, plans they have made upended, less money in their pockets, and monthly payments not just abruptly restarted—but maybe even abruptly jacked up by hundreds of dollars."
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the HELP committee, echoed that sentiment.
"Republicans' cruel attempt to stand in the way of President Biden's plans to provide relief to tens of millions of Americans suffering under the crushing weight of student loan debt is damaging to our economy and wildly out of touch with the financial realities facing working families," said Markey.
"The loan forgiveness the president is proposing would mean the difference between buying a home, starting a business, and getting an economic leg up for nearly 50 million working and middle-class Americans, particularly for borrowers of color and their families," he concluded. "If you kicked Republicans in the heart, you'd break your toe."
"If approved, this $500 million climate-wrecking handout would further threaten the air, land, and water of frontline communities in the United States and in Poland, making a mockery of Biden's purported commitment to environmental justice," said one campaigner.
Climate campaigners on Thursday said that within days, President Joe Biden's promises to end public finance for fossil fuel projects may prove empty if plans that the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation has indicated it has for an LNG project in Poland come to fruition.
The DFC, which oversees U.S. investments in development projects in lower- and middle-income countries, listed on its pending project list on May 23 a $500 million guarantee to support the Polish oil and gas company PKN Orlen to increase its liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports.
The pending transaction was listed ahead of the DFC's board meeting, which is scheduled for June 7.
Oil Change International (OCI) noted that the LNG listing was removed on May 30, but the "public information summary" remained live as of Thursday, suggesting the board could still approve the project.
The project, which would involve Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs helping the company to increase its imports, would be in direct contradiction to President Joe Biden's statement at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2021 that his administration would end public finance for fossil fuel development after 2022.
"President Biden has cited his promise to end international public funding for fossil fuels as a sign of his ongoing commitment to climate leadership, even as he boosts fossil fuels and breaks many of his core climate promises at home," said Collin Rees, U.S. program manager at OCI. "The Development Finance Corporation approving this dirty project would show once and for all these claims are nothing but empty words."
"LNG is a false solution that will intensify the climate crisis and increase the world's dependence on fossil fuels."
LNG is gas that has been cooled and liquefied after being extracted by drilling or fracking. As Common Dreamsreported in April, 116 climate action groups wrote to Biden ahead of the Group of 7 (G7) climate and energy meeting in Japan last month to warn that "the global LNG boom" must be stopped.
Campaigners say the continued expansion of LNG would harm communities that lie near fracking and drilling sites as well as LNG export terminals, while disregarding the warnings of scientists and energy experts who are unequivocal in their warnings that new fossil fuel extraction projects have no place on a pathway to keeping planetary heating under 2°C above preindustrial temperatures.
"If approved, this $500 million climate-wrecking handout would further threaten the air, land, and water of frontline communities in the United States and in Poland, making a mockery of Biden's purported commitment to environmental justice," said Rees. "A rapid buildout of 100% renewable energy is the only pathway to global energy security."
The DFC's potential approval of the project would mark the second time in less than a month that the Biden administration has agreed to finance new fossil fuel development. In May the U.S. Export-Import Bank approved nearly $100 million for the Balikpapan oil refinery in Indonesia.
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel also spoke at a recent Alaska Sustainable Energy Conference about a proposal for an 807-mile gas pipeline across Alaska and an LNG export terminal that he claimed would be in the United States' economic and national security interests.
"LNG is a false solution that will intensify the climate crisis and increase the world's dependence on fossil fuels," wrote Kay Brown, Arctic policy director for Pacific Environment, at Common Dreams on Thursday. "LNG is methane compressed and chilled to make it easier to transport. Methane emissions are 80 times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide, in the short term."
While Biden said at COP26 and at the G7 meeting that he is committed to ending public financing for fossil fuel projects past 2022, the White House has not released guidance outlining how that promise will be kept.
"Biden's refusal to publish public guidance upholding the international fossil fuel pledge is enabling DFC to keep funding dirty fossil fuel expansion," said Rees. "In removing this massive handout to the U.S. LNG industry from its pending project list, DFC is following Biden's lead and keeping ongoing fossil fuel support hidden from the public eye."
"Today is a day of justice. It's a day of justice for those brave men of the SAS who stood up and told the truth about who Ben Roberts-Smith is—a war criminal, a bully, and a liar," said one of the journalists sued for defamation.
An Australian federal judge on Thursday ruled in favor of three newspapers sued for defamation by the country's most decorated living soldier, who the court found committed war crimes in Afghanistan, including the murder of civilians and unarmed prisoners.
Following harrowing testimony from fellow soldiers, Afghan civilians, and others, Justice Anthony Besanko of the Federal Court of Australia ruled that Fairfax Media newspapers The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Canberra Times had "established the substantial truth" that former Special Air Service Regiment [SASR] Cpl. Ben Roberts-Smith is a war criminal who murdered four unarmed prisoners in Afghanistan.
Roberts-Smith—whose multimillion-dollar defense was bankrolled by billionaire Australian media mogul Kerry Stokes—is a recipient of the Victoria Cross for Australia, the nation's highest military honor, as well as other awards including the Medal for Gallantry and Commendation for Distinguished Service. He fought in the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Today is a day of justice. It's a day of justice for those brave men of the SAS who stood up and told the truth about who Ben Roberts-Smith is: a war criminal, a bully, and a liar," Sydney Morning Herald and The Age journalist Nick McKenzie—a defendant in the suit—said following the ruling. "Today is a day of some small justice for the Afghan victims of Ben Roberts-Smith."
\u201cAustralia's most decorated living veteran was not defamed when accused of committing war crimes in Afghanistan, a judge has ruled \u2014 calling the allegations he killed unarmed prisoners 'substantially true.'\u201d— DW News (@DW News) 1685634121
Besanko found that in 2012 Roberts-Smith marched a handcuffed civilian prisoner named Ali Jan to a cliff in the southern village of Darwan and kicked him off the edge. Jan survived but was severely injured; Roberts-Smith ordered a subordinate soldier to execute the man.
"Ali Jan was a father, Ali Jan was a husband. He has children who no longer have a father. He was a wife who no longer has a husband," McKenzie said.
While Roberts-Smith argued Jan was a suspected Taliban scout, Besanko wrote that the soldier "murdered an unarmed and defenseless Afghan civilian," that he "broke the moral and legal rules of military engagement and is therefore a criminal," and that he "disgraced his country Australia and the Australian army by his conduct as a member of the SASR in Afghanistan."
In 2009, Roberts-Smith is alleged to have pressured a newly deployed soldier to execute an elderly Afghan man found hiding in a tunnel in order to "blood the rookie," according to the court. Roberts-Smith machine-gunned the man's younger disabled companion to death and then took his prosthetic leg back to Australia, where he encouraged fellow soldiers to drink beer from it, an act the court called "callous and inhumane."
\u201cCW: Afghanistan War Crimes\n\nAustralian soldier Ben Roberts-Smith kicked a handcuffed Afghan man off a cliff and then ordered him shot; shot a teenage prisoner point-blank in the head; and gunned down a disabled man, whose prosthetic leg SAS soldiers later used to drink beer.\u201d— Rebecca J. Kavanagh (@Rebecca J. Kavanagh) 1685599535
Besanko also found that Roberts-Smith bullied a fellow soldier, while finding that the papers did not prove an allegation that he punched a woman with whom he was having an affair in the face after a 2018 argument in Canberra.
University of Sydney professor David Rolph, a defamation law expert, told the Morning Herald that the court's judgment "is a comprehensive victory for the media outlets" and "a vindication of the journalism in question."
"Defamation losses have a chilling effect for the media, particularly for serious investigative journalism," he added. "This decision should give media outlets some confidence that they can undertake public-interest journalism and prevail."
Sen. David Shoebridge (Green-New South Wales) called Besanko's ruling "an important win for fearless journalism in the public interest."
"It's a tragic fact that private media companies, not any part of the federal government, have taken on the public task of telling the truth about Australia's war record in Afghanistan," Shoebridge told the Morning Herald. "The official silence must now end."
\u201c"@benmckelvey said Australia needs to launch a royal commission \u2014 akin to a U.S. congressional inquiry \u2014 to understand what went wrong.\n\nThe defamation trial, he said, was \u201cjust a little peek through the crack in the door.\u201d"\u201d— White Rose Society (Australia) (@White Rose Society (Australia)) 1685600983
In 2017, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation obtained leaked documents—known as the Afghan Files—detailing SASR war crimes such as the murder of unarmed civilians including children. A subsequent parliamentary probe confirmed the commission of war crimes by Australian troops in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.
On Wednesday, Reutersreported Australian defense chief Gen. Angus Campbell was warned by the United States—which has a long history of war crimes in Afghanistan and other countries invaded or attacked during the open-ended War on Terror—that allegations of SAS atrocities could trigger the Leahy Law, which prohibits military assistance to countries that violate human rights with impunity.
Troops from other coalition forces—including Afghans, British, Germans, Polish, and Canadians—have committed or been complicit in atrocities during the Afghan war, as have Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Islamic State fighters.