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Blog PostFOIA Request | July 22, 2019

Revolving Door Project Requests Info On Big Tech Regulators

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The Revolving Door Project’s mission is to scrutinize the nexus of corporate power and the executive branch. In the United States, two agencies within the executive branch have the power to seek to break up a company: The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division. That is why it is important that we research any entanglements undermining the FTC and DOJ Antitrust’s commitment to serving the public interest.

For decades, these agencies have mostly sat back and allowed the American economy to consolidate, consolidate, consolidate. But that might be changing. In June, reports swirled that the FTC and DOJ had begun investigating the so-called Big Four technology companies, with FTC looking into Amazon and Facebook while DoJ probes Apple and Google.

The case for breaking up big tech has been growing for years. Many onlookers compare the likes of Bezos, Zuckerberg, and Cook to Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Carnegie — barons of the Second Gilded Age. But just because there’s a good case for action never means that the federal government will take it, especially when Silicon Valley has built an influence-peddling operation in Washington that may even surpass Wall Street’s.

Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to bring an antitrust case comes down to a few key individuals across the two agencies.

In the FTC, the final call will come from the Commissioners. There are five of them, three Republicans and two Democrats, who all assumed office within the last year. Amazon and Facebook will almost certainly try to directly influence the thinking of these Commissioners. Therefore, the public needs to know whether these decision-makers have taken meetings with either of these companies, in order to accurately judge each Commissioners’ performance and interpret their ultimate vote.

In the DOJ, only one man will make the final call on whether to bring cases against Apple or Google: Makan Delrahim, the Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division. Notably, Delrahim has a history with one of his subjects. In 2007, he helped shepherd Google’s purchase of DoubleClick through the regulatory eyes of the FTC and DoJ, meaning he previously worked as exactly the sort of influencer who may now attempt to skew his own decision-making.

DoubleClick was a particularly important acquisition for Google — it gave the company tools to expand into banner ads, and crucially, had developed some of the earliest behavioral advertising technology. This was the foundation for today’s targeted ads, which have helped Google to single-handedly control 38% of the online advertising market.

Delrahim’s history with Google raises eyebrows. But he has been trying to counter any inference of a conflict of interest by adopting a public facing posture of independence, saying “We already have in our possession the tools we need to enforce the antitrust laws in cases involving digital technologies. US antitrust law is flexible enough to be applied to markets old and new.”

Still, just like the FTC Commissioners, it is important for the public to understand how Apple and Google may be attempting to sway Delrahim. That’s why the Revolving Door Project has sent Freedom of Information Act requests for the administrative calendars of both Delrahim and each of the FTC Commissioners, starting from when each official assumed office.

We’ll also be using FOIA, as always, to follow how money and corruption grease the wheels of the American economy for industry’s benefit. That’s why we’re requesting a list of attorneys and staffers who’ve departed the FTC over the last five years. We’re curious how many ex-FTC attorneys have taken jobs working for the corporations they used to oversee. We’ve already identified one such case: Laura Berger, the former senior attorney at the FTC’s Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, who now works as LinkedIn’s Head of Privacy for the Americas. That’s why we’re requesting copies of her official email correspondence with LinkedIn while she was on the FTC’s payroll.

And that’s just the beginning — we will be filing several more FOIA in the coming weeks as we seek to uncover how and why corporate consolidation has reached current levels. If you have ideas for additional FOIA or other research topics, please do not hesitate to reach out at [email protected]

The public deserves to understand how Silicon Valley’s influence machine impacts the policy choices that affect all of our digital lives. Whether or not the FTC or DOJ ultimately bring cases against any of these companies, simply seeing who these officials are meeting with will help onlookers assess their decisions. The voices in the ears of our top regulators inevitably affect their decision-making — we at least deserve to know who those voices are.

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