Federal Trade Commission Acting Chair Maureen Ohlhausen signaled Tuesday that she opposes expanding antitrust laws in response to potential competitive threats posed by technology companies.
"I do believe that today’s antitrust can confront meaningful competitive harm in the modern, digitally mediated economy," she said in a speech delivered at Georgetown University.
While she did not mention Google, Facebook or Amazon by name, Ohlhausen noted that the growth of online platforms has spurred some observers to advocate for a more aggressive antitrust approach.
"There is fear in some quarters that we are spiraling towards a dystopian future where a few giant technology companies will ultimately gain sustained control over our economic lives," Ohlhausen said. "Some people are so concerned about this that they want to rewrite the modern rules of antitrust enforcement... In this new, digitally mediated world, they argue, we must recast the rules of antitrust to intervene more aggressively in markets to pursue a wide variety of goals other than consumer welfare."
Ohlhausen then expressed reservations about that approach: "Given the clear consumer benefits of technology-driven innovation, I am concerned about the push to adopt an approach that will disregard consumer benefits in the pursuit of other perhaps even conflicting goals," she said.
Her remarks come as some industry observers are expressing concern that the major tech companies have grown too powerful. Among the most prominent critics of the Silicon Valley giants is Jonathan Taplin, director emeritus of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab, who argued in a recent op-ed that "Facebook, Google and Amazon have stymied innovation on a broad scale."
The News Media Alliance, a trade group representing many of the country's biggest newspapers, has also expressed concerns that Google and Facebook are having a negative impact on newspapers. That group is seeking to revise antitrust laws -- not by increasing enforcement, but by rewriting the rules to allow newspapers to bargain collectively with Google and Facebook.
Ohlhausen also noted that technology can change very quickly, stating that people who work in the industry "understand how tenuous a hold they often have on their current position, and that the next major shift in technology could very well leave them behind."
In discussing the rapid pace of change in the tech market, she specifically called attention to AOL's failed merger with Time Warner -- which alarmed some antitrust hawks back in 2000. "We don’t spend a lot of time talking about that merger these days for obvious reasons," she said.