February 14, 2018 / 6:39 PM / 7 months ago

FTC nominees open to tech probes, concerned about high drug prices

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Federal Trade Commission should be open to investigating big tech firms like Google or Facebook if they use their power inappropriately and should create a drug pricing task force to identify unusual price increases, Joe Simons said at a hearing to consider his nomination to head the agency.

The Federal Trade Commission building is seen in Washington on March 4, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Three others nominated to be FTC commissioners, Republicans Christine Wilson and Noah Phillips and Democrat Rohit Chopra, agreed with Simons’ concerns about the two issues at their confirmation hearing at the Senate Commerce Committee.

There was little sign that the nominations would run into trouble during a hearing that touched on everything from multi-billion dollar mergers to annoying phone calls and scams.

Lawmakers asked the four nominees about the FTC’s investigation of Equifax, which was hacked last year in a breach that compromised the personal information of 143 million Americans.

The four nominees responded cautiously, noting an ongoing FTC probe, but talked tough on investigating breaches.

“One of the things that I’m extremely concerned about is whether the FTC has sufficient authority regarding data breaches,” said Simons, who asked lawmakers to consider giving the agency the authority to fine companies.

Asked if the agency might revisit the question of giant tech companies using their economic clout to extend their dominance into related markets, the nominees indicated they were interested.

The FTC has been sharply criticized for settling with Google in early 2013 after a lengthy investigation into whether the company had manipulated search results to hurt rivals, among other offenses.

“At a high level, I don’t believe that big is necessarily bad,” said Simons, adding that the agency needed to step in if large tech companies go too far. “Companies that are big and influential can use inappropriate means to stay big.”

Wilson and others indicated they were also willing to consider a probe. “My door is open,” said Wilson. “No company is above the law.”

The FTC works with the U.S. Justice Department to enforce antitrust law.

Sharp price increases for some drugs, including generic ones, were a key concern for many lawmakers.

“I would like to explore putting together a drug pricing monitoring task force,” said Simons. He said the force would quickly identify troubling price rises to expedite investigations.

U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer has recommended that the White House nominate one of his top aides, Rebecca Slaughter, to the second Democratic seat.

Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Bernadette Baum

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