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The agency has long been dwarfed by Silicon Valley titans like Google and Apple, each staffed with thousands of engineers and technologists.
But FTC leaders are hoping combining and expanding their forces into a dedicated tech unit will help them keep up with the rapid advancements across the industry — and to keep it in check.
The creation of the office will increase the number of technologists on staff by roughly a dozen, up from the current 10 — more than doubling the agency’s capacity, officials said.
In an exclusive interview announcing the move, FTC Chief Technology Officer Stephanie Nguyen said the unit will work with teams across the agency’s competition and consumer protection bureaus to investigate potential misconduct and bring cases against violators.
“Actually being able to have staff internally to approach these matters and help with subject matter expertise is critical,” said Nguyen, who will lead the office.
The announcement arrives at a critical juncture. Federal regulators are dialing up investigations into tech behemoths like Amazon and waging blockbuster legal battles against Microsoft and Facebook parent company Meta.
(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
While Nguyen declined to discuss specific probes or cases, she said the new technology office will work directly on both the agency’s investigative and enforcement efforts to “strengthen and support our attorneys” as they look to tackle alleged abuses across the economy.
“The areas … we will focus on is to work on cases,” she said. “This means understanding the specific market and business models. This means articulating the platform’s technologies and services. And this means analyzing the competition and key market players.”
For example, Nguyen said, the new team of technologists could help the agency refine the subpoenas it issues companies to get at the heart of their business models, or to strike a settlement that gets closer to “the root cause of the harm” taking place.
Nguyen said the office will assist with cases across the economy, not just the tech sector. “The FTC regulates the entire economy, from tuna fish labeling to social media companies to agriculture products … so it really runs the gamut here,” she said.
But she said the team of technologists will be crucial to decoding the machinations of companies in Silicon Valley, whose opaque algorithms and sprawling businesses can pose challenges for regulators.
Her first priority, Nguyen said, will be building out her team, which will pull in some of the agency’s existing technologists in addition to its planned new hires.
“Skills could look like security and software engineering, data science to artificial intelligence, human computer interaction to design,” said Nguyen, a veteran of the White House’s U.S. Digital Service and a former research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
While the agency is expanding its roster of technologists, its size will still pale in comparison to the battalions of technical experts in Silicon Valley.
“Already this small but very mighty agency is facing some of the biggest corporations of our time,” Nguyen said.
But the agency could ask Congress to provide more funds to grow the office down the line. Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill have long called for more tech chops at the FTC.
“We are an agency that would always benefit from more resources here,” Nguyen said.
However, staffing up poses its own challenges.
Agencies across the federal government often struggle to attract top tech talent due in part to the wage disparities between private and public sector jobs.
Nguyen said her pitch to prospective hires will lean on the agency’s mission.
“We’re the premier regulatory agency in the United States, and we are excited about tackling some of the most complex problems of our time,” she said.
The agency voted to approve the office’s creation in a 4-0 vote Thursday.
It marks the first vote by Republican Commissioner Christine Wilson made public since she announced plans to “soon” resign from the agency on Tuesday, without specifying a timeline. Wilson cited her objections to what she called the agency’s “lawlessness” under Khan.
Khan, a driving force behind the creation of the new tech unit, in a statement called it “a natural next step in ensuring we have the in-house skills needed to fully grasp evolving technologies and market trends as we continue to tackle unlawful business practices and protect Americans.”
Our top tabs
YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki steps down, leaving Big Tech with no female CEOs
“YouTube Chief Executive Officer Susan Wojcicki will step down after nearly a decade of leading the Google-owned video site, leaving all of the major social media and entertainment platforms in the management of men,” my colleagues Gerrit De Vynck and Naomi Nix report.
“Wojcicki is one of the most prominent women in Silicon Valley, which for years has struggled to diversify,” they wrote. “She has been part of Google since the company’s beginnings in 1998, and has led YouTube, one of the world’s most important entertainment platforms which Google acquired.”
Neal Mohan, YouTube’s head of product, will take over as CEO.
Biden orders agencies to tackle ‘algorithmic discrimination’ and ‘data equity’
President Biden directed federal agencies to use their powers to tackle “algorithmic discrimination in automated technology” and to “advance equity” around data in an executive order signed Thursday.
The White House said in a statement that the order, the second Biden has issued on civil rights issues, “reaffirms the Administration’s commitment to deliver equity and build an America in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential.”
The original order, which Biden signed on his first day in office, created a federal interagency working group dedicated to issues around data equity, while the latest order “directs the body to facilitate better collection, analysis, and use of demographic data to advance equity.”
FCC probing if telecoms exaggerated broadband coverage
The Federal Communications Commission is investigation whether broadband-service providers exaggerated how much coverage they offer to authorities getting ready to distribute billions of dollars in internet subsidies, Bloomberg News’s Todd Shields and Scott Moritz report.
The agency told the outlet it has multiple investigations involving several providers, but declined to say which. “Broad claims of coverage could block potential rivals from obtaining subsidies that would let them more aggressively compete with the established providers,” they wrote.
“At issue are claims by carriers that they already provide high-speed internet service to rural and other underserved areas where it’s not actually available,” according to the report. “The Biden administration is awarding $42.5 billion to increase access in these locations.”
Inside the industry
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A cat was saved from under the rubble in Turkey. It now refuses to leave its rescuer's side. pic.twitter.com/Nveaxu3QrG— Anton Gerashchenko (@Gerashchenko_en) February 16, 2023
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