FTC chief Leibowitz now watches over firms he once lobbied for

"There's times . . . where there is a real need to go after malefactors," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said.
"There's times . . . where there is a real need to go after malefactors," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 25, 2009

When Jon Leibowitz was nominated in 2004 to sit on the Federal Trade Commission, critics feared that the former Hollywood lobbyist would be soft on the media and high-tech industries he used to promote. They presumed he would overlook emerging privacy concerns surrounding Google and Internet social networking sites in favor of the advertising industry.

But in the nine months since President Obama picked Leibowitz as the FTC's chairman, the agency has churned out a steady stream of actions aimed at the high-tech sector.

"I had my initial misgivings about Jon going to the commission, but I will admit, as chairman he has helped waken an agency that was in a deep digital slumber," said Jeffrey Chester, head of the Center for Digital Democracy, which advocates for consumer privacy protections on the Internet.

Last week, the FTC filed an antitrust lawsuit against Intel, alleging that the company is maintaining its global dominance in the computer processor market through bribes and bullying. This year, it has investigated Google's spreading tentacles on the Web at least twice. Leibowitz has held workshops on online privacy, the link between advertising and child obesity, and the future of journalism in a digital age.

Many industry experts say it's too early to say if the actions of the FTC, an independent agency, will set the stage for bigger regulatory pursuits. And they note that much of the focus on technology began before the Obama administration took office.

'Referee on the field'

The real test on antitrust will be with a major media or high-tech merger, such as that of Comcast's $30 billion union with NBC Universal. That merger will be handed early next year to either the FTC or Justice Department for antitrust review.

But already the FTC has offered a hint of taking a more vigorous approach to competition in the high-tech sector, a shift in recent years as Internet firms have become a bigger influence on the economy.

"The tech sector is a driving force and dynamic force in America today, so we spend some time thinking about it, in the same way we think about health care because health care is enormously important to Americans," Leibowitz said in a recent interview.

That approach is taking the agency into murky waters, where balancing consumer protections can rub up against a fast-moving industry that has historically been leery of regulation. Opponents say high-tech firms need the freedom to create new products and business models without being constrained by federal rules.

The lawsuit against Intel drew objections from one high-tech trade group, the Association for Competitive Technology, which called the action hasty and said it could hurt Intel's ability to compete.

"One of the most troubling aspects of this complaint is that it appears to advocate for an exploration of Intel's intellectual property, which is a dangerous precedent for all innovation firms, big and small," said the association's president, Jonathan Zuck.

Ed Black, president of another trade group, the Computer & Communications Industry Association, is more comfortable with the FTC's activity.

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