Simons says don't push us: FTC boss warns regulator could totally break up big tech companies if it wanted

Spoiler alert: It won't

The boss of the Federal Trade Commission, Joe Simons, said yesterday that his agency could split up big technology companies if other solutions or remedies did not work.

The FTC chairman said the US regulator could potentially unpick previous mergers as part of its wide-ranging probe into large tech companies. This could refer to Facebook's purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp – both approved by the FTC at the time, of course.

In an interview, Simons told Bloomberg that there were questions about Instagram's success and how much it relied on being snapped up by Facebook or whether it would have gained market share on its own. He admitted that splitting up companies – essentially by "undoing" their acquisitions – would be messy and difficult but remained a possible option. The agency could say "we made a mistake", opined Simons.

The FTC and Department of Justice are both investigating the tech sector, although it remains unclear how their responsibilities have been divvied up and overlap avoided. Simons said it was possible both agencies could be investigating different behaviours or business practices by the same company.

There seems to be support on both sides for reform in Washington – Democrats on competition grounds and some Republicans following US President Donald Trump's line that Silicon Valley is a hotbed of Democrat-lovin', fake news-promotin' socialists.

Simons also said the FTC paid little attention to what was said by the White House: "We don't have the authority or the expertise to deal with political speech," he said, adding the agency is more focused on issues around consumer protection and antitrust laws.

The FTC faced recent criticism for letting Facebook off the hook over privacy offences, albeit with a $5bn fine. Simons defended the decision at the time as better than the agency takings its chances on long-running and not necessarily successful court action. ®

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