GOP Federal Trade Commissioner Dismisses Using Antitrust to Address Social Media Censorship

Kent Walker, Sean Edgett, Colin Stretch

Republican Federal Trade Commissioner (FTC) Noah Phillips dismissed the idea of using the agency’s antitrust authority to address social media giants’ censorship practices on Tuesday.

Phillips told Politico during a taping of C-SPAN’s The Communicators that the FTC should avoid using its antitrust authority to address Facebook, Google, and Twitter’s censorship practices.

“In a democracy, with a free press, we need to be very careful about using tools of law enforcement to address problems like that,” Phillips told Politico on Tuesday.

Phillips’ quote describes social media companies as a “free press” rather than neutral social media platforms, which the companies claim to be. Classifying social media companies as publishers rather than neutral platforms could open up Facebook, Google, and Twitter to increased scrutiny regarding their content moderation and censorship practices.

Former FCC Wireless Bureau Chief Fred Campbell told Breitbart News in an interview in August that Congress should repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives social media companies significant leeway to censor free speech and content without legal recourse.

“They’re subject to a legislative exception that is a couple decades old, overturning a century of law. If they want to play editor, great, then comply with the laws that all of the others editors comply with and give up your special exemption,” Campbell said.

Further, the Republican FTC commissioner explained that he does not believe that the nation’s pre-eminent consumer protection agency should  police social media bias or censorship, even outside the context of antitrust.

“With respect to the FTC, I don’t know that we have either any particular capability or mandate to do so,” Phillips said.

President Donald Trump, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), as well as Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Jim Jordan (R-OH) have railed against the social media companies’ anti-conservative bias.

President Trump said at a press conference in November that he could work with Democrats on social media regulation.

“I would look at that,” the president said in response to a question from Breitbart News regarding social media companies’ censorship practices. Trump added that he thinks it is “a serious problem.”

“I understand why people are concerned about biases in general,” Phillips added. “What I’m also, though, very concerned about is using antitrust to address those biases if they exist.”

Phillip’s contention raises questions over whether Facebook and Google have engaged in anticompetitive practices, which would stifle competition online.

Facebook and Google have inflamed controversy in the past for their anticompetitive practices. When review website Yelp would not sell to Google in 2009, Google decided to scrape Yelp’s search results and displayed them directly on Google. Yelp complained to both the FTC and Google; however, Google said the only recourse was to remove Yelp from the search engine.

Luther Lowe, a vice president at Yelp, stated, “We still exist, but Google did everything it could to ensure that we’d never present a threat to them. It’s bullying, but they’re the 800-pound gorilla.”

In April, Zuckerberg defended his company’s dominant status online by claiming that Facebook competes with at least eight major apps, although Facebook owns or imitates a version of each app that supposedly competes with his company. Further, media outlets have detailed the many times that Facebook copied or ripped off Snapchat’s ideas on their Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, or WhatsApp platforms.

Phillips joined the FTC after the Senate unanimously confirmed him in April. Before joining the FTC, Phillips served as chief counsel to Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), a member of Senate Republican leadership.

Not all FTC commissioners and chairmen agree with Phillips’ assessment of FTC enforcement of social media censorship. Former Acting FTC Chair Maureen Ohlhausen, whom analysts largely view as being fairly pro-tech, wrote in 2016 that antitrust can promote “openness and free speech” because “consumers care about a host of qualities for Internet access, not just price, and antitrust protects market forces, which respond to consumer demand under competition.”

Further, the Internet Association (IA), which represents Facebook, Google, and Twitter, filed an amicus brief in August 2018 that if antitrust does not protect free speech, then special net neutrality rules are needed for Internet service providers (ISPs) to prevent cable companies from unfairly blocking or censoring content. The Internet Association’s suggestion raises the question whether the FCC could and or should establish similar regulations for content providers such as Facebook or Google to prevent unfair censorship.

FTC Commissioner Phillips’ comments contrast with Reps. Blackburn and Jordan, who called for investigating and regulating the social media giants over their censorship practices.

Blackburn told Breitbart News in an interview in June that social media companies need regulation to prevent their censorship practices.

“We are focused on making certain that we look at these violations and make certain that we schedule the proper oversight and proper hearings; we want to be certain that they don’t censor conservatives,” Blackburn said.

The FTC Commissioner’s comments also differ with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who wrote in a blog post in September that America needs to think “seriously” about whether social media giants need to abide by “new transparency” requirements regarding censorship and privacy.

“After all, just as is the case with respect to broadband providers, consumers need accurate information in order to make educated choices about whether and how to use these tech giants’ platforms,” Pai added.


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