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Federal regulators see fighting monopoly power as critical consumer-protection tool

Chris Matthews

Feds and state attorneys general to increasingly focus on competition enforcement

The movement to fight monopoly power is notable in that it's one of the few major topics that enjoys bipartisan support in Congress -- though skeptics rightly point out that while Democrats and Republicans agree that the U.S. economy suffers from a competition problem, they don't agree on what steps should be taken to solve it.

But this divide is not nearly as prevalent at the state level, where attorneys general have banded together on bipartisan lawsuits against big tech firms like Facebook (link)Inc. (FB)and Alphabet Inc.'s (link)(GOOGL) Google, and where even Republican law enforcers have shown willingness to work with Biden-appointed officials at agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to go after companies that are violating laws aimed at promoting competition.

This bipartisanship was on display at the National Association of Attorney General Consumer Protection conference Tuesday, where the heads of these agencies were invited to speak about their efforts at consumer protection and how they can collaborate with top state law enforcers to further those goals.

Read more: Democrats unveil broad antitrust bill that could upend tech sector (http://Democrats unveil broad antitrust bill that could upend tech sector)

The conversation quickly turned to pro-competition policy, with Acting Director of the Consumer Financial Bureau Dave Uejio telling the audience that "competition policy has never been more important than it is today," because "competition is the best way to ensure that consumers have power in their transactions with companies."

Acting chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission Rebecca Kelly Slaughter framed the FTC's lawsuit against Facebook, which was joined by 48 attorneys general from 46 states, the District of Columbia and Guam, as an effort that would bolster consumer protections.

"In digital markets ... we're seeing huge consumer protection issues" related to privacy, the use of consumer data and harassment, Slaughter said. "That's coming from platforms that have enormous market power."

Google is also the subject of a joint lawsuit brought last fall by the Justice Department's antitrust division in partnership with 13 state attorneys general, while an even broader suit was brought by a bipartisan coalition of 38 state attorneys general. The Justice Department and the FTC are also reportedly investigating (link) Inc. (AMZN)and Apple Inc (link). (AAPL) for violations of federal competition laws.

From February: Attorney general nominee Garland says he will 'vigorously' enforce antitrust law (link)

Though there is greater agreement among Democrats and Republicans that big tech firms specifically are in need of greater antitrust scrutiny, the proliferation of high-tech components in products from appliances to farming equipment has made this distinction less helpful, according to Slaughter.

She pointed to a congressionally mandated report (link) the FTC submitted last week examining the issue of manufacturer restrictions on who is allowed to repair products that highlighted the way companies extract more revenue from consumers by creating products that cannot be repaired by third parties.

Advocates for the "right to repair" have called out Apple's iPhone as an example of a product designed to become obsolete in short order, as well as John Deere's (DE) farming equipment. "The phone or tractor you buy quickly becomes a lump of junk," because of such tactics, Slaughter said.

Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut also appeared at the conference, offering his support to state AGs and federal enforcers and urging them to show "backbone and grit," when it comes to enforcement of antitrust laws. Blumenthal is a co-sponsor of recent proposed legislation that would boost resources for federal antitrust enforcers and give them wider power to block mergers and break up companies engaging in anticompetitive practices. Similar legislation is also being considered in the House.

"All to often agencies have been lagging and lacking in their enforcement," he said. "If laws aren't enforced, they are a dead letter."

-Chris Matthews; 415-439-6400;


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

05-11-21 1822ET

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