Biden appoints FTC and FCC acting directors in move that signals a more aggressive approach to regulating big tech

Leah Millis/Reuters; Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesFTC acting director Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and FCC acting director Jessica Rosenworcel.
  • Biden picked Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Jessica Rosenworcel as acting FTC and FCC directors.
  • The two Democrats have been more aggressive regulating big tech in the past than Trump’s appointees.
  • They also favour many of Biden’s stances on issues like internet access, net neutrality, and privacy.
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President Joe Biden made two key agency appointments on Thursday that offer an early window into how his administration could approach regulating the tech and telecom industries.

Biden selected Democrat Rebecca Kelly Slaughter as acting director of the Federal Trade Commission and Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel as acting director of the Federal Communications Commission.

Slaughter began her term at the FTC in May 2018, after being nominated by President Donald Trump. Rosenworcel was first nominated to serve on the FCC by President Barack Obama in 2012, and is the longest-serving Democratic commissioner at the agency.

The appointments signal that Biden’s administration will likely continue to get tougher on regulating tech and telecom companies, building on the Trump administration’s mix of increasing antitrust enforcement, attempts to roll back Section 230’s legal protections for internet companies, and laissez-faire approach to telecom regulations.

The outgoing FTC Chairman Joe Simons, a Trump appointee, had begun to ramp up the agency’s antitrust and consumer privacy work, opening several landmark investigations into Facebook, Amazon, Google, and even started looking at past mergers and acquisitions by big tech.

Slaughter has supported the FTC’s increasingly hard line on antitrust issues as well as privacy, but she has also argued the agency should have taken action earlier and issued harsher penalties more likely to deter companies from future law-breaking, including holding executives personally liable for their companies’ privacy violations.

Slaugher has also said that the FTC’s enforcement efforts should be “anti-racist” through ensuring markets aren’t racially discriminatory and protecting consumers from algorithmic bias.

Rosenworcel’s appointment to the FCC, however, marks an even greater departure from her predecessor, the outgoing Chairman Ajit Pai.

A former Verizon lawyer, Pai drew criticism for being overly friendly toward the companies under his agency’s purview, opposing overwhelmingly popular net neutrality rules, and doing little to improve Americans’ internet speeds or ability to access the internet in the first place.

Rosenworcel has pushed for the FCC to use its authority and resources to expand internet access, particularly to students whose lack of home internet has prevented them from keeping up in school while participating in remote learning during the pandemic — the so-called “homework gap.” She has also voiced support for net neutrality in the past, and will likely face pressure to reinstate the policy.

Slaughter and Rosenworcel will likely play a key role in any efforts to modify Section 230, which some Democrats say lets tech companies off the hook for not doing enough to disincentivize hate speech, harassment, and violence on their platforms.

The appointments aren’t final, as Biden will still need to decide whether to nominate Slaughter and Rosenworcel as permanent chairs. They will also likely face delays implementing their more ambitious plans until Biden nominates additional commissioners to break the current 2-2 split between Democrats and Republicans at both agencies.

Both the FTC and FCC are led by as many as five commissioners, appointed by the president, and neither is allowed to have more than three members of one party. Biden’s appointments will need to be confirmed by the Senate, a likely prospect as Vice President Kamala Harris could break any tie between the evenly divided upper chamber.

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