Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist and Facebook board member, is leading the Trump administration's search to fill the government's two top antitrust enforcement jobs, two people familiar with the matter have told BuzzFeed News. While the process is ongoing, the candidate said to be the preferred choice of another tech giant, Google, is unlikely to be picked, the people added.
Thiel, who supported President Trump in the campaign and then joined his transition team, is vetting candidates for chairperson of the Federal Trade Commission and antitrust chief at the Department of Justice, the two officials who enforce the nation’s anti-monopoly laws, according to the people familiar with the matter. On Wednesday, Trump named Maureen Ohlhausen, a Republican FTC commissioner, as acting chairwoman, but the search for a permanent chair continues.
One candidate to lead the FTC, Joshua Wright, a former commissioner at the agency, is seen as Google’s favorite for the job. Wright has ties to Google from his earlier work as a law professor, when he received funding from groups backed by Google and co-wrote a paper sympathetic to the search giant. But Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent company, who supported Hillary Clinton’s campaign, has struggled to gain traction in Trump’s circle, one person said.
Google, which spent $15.4 million in 2016 lobbying Congress and federal agencies, could now be left in the cold. A leading contender to chair the FTC is Sean Reyes, the Utah attorney general, according to the people. Reyes last year co-wrote a letter to the FTC asking the agency to consider reopening an antitrust case against Google that it had closed without bringing charges.
One challenge for Thiel, according to people familiar with the search, is finding candidates who are Republican and yet willing to diverge from the libertarian position that the government should basically leave companies alone. Trump's campaign rhetoric suggested he would favor candidates who envision an active role for antitrust enforcement, and Thiel's search has reflected that, the people said.
Both Wright and Ohlhausen fit in the traditional conservative mold. At a Heritage Foundation event Tuesday, Ohlhausen was asked by New America Foundation Fellow Matthew Stoller whether President Trump could wield antitrust policies to promote American jobs. “She basically said no,” Stoller told BuzzFeed News.
GCR earlier reported that Thiel was helping to fill the two antitrust jobs. A spokesperson for Thiel did not immediately provide a comment, and spokespeople for the White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Reyes declined to comment, while Wright did not respond to a request for comment. A Google spokesperson also declined to comment.
Thiel’s prominent role in the antitrust vetting process is notable in part because he is a director of Facebook, a company with dominant positions in social media and messaging. Between them, Facebook and Google now account for more than two-thirds of all online ad spending, Bloomberg News has reported. Still, someone close to Thiel said that the venture capitalist’s foremost concern is finding candidates who fit with the president’s particular ideology.
As a businessman, Thiel has praised monopolies, saying that the profitability that comes with dominant market power can give companies the leeway to invest more in their employees and in risky research and development. “Only one thing can allow a business to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival: monopoly profits,” he wrote in his book Zero to One.
The company Thiel has singled out as a prime example of such a monopoly: Google.
Under president Obama, the FTC took a special interest in emerging technologies and their implications for data privacy. The agency's Mobile Technology Unit, and later, the Office of Technology Research and Investigation, were created to extend consumer protection to the digital economy. Consumer issues tied to mobile health apps, smart cars, algorithmic transparency, and the internet of things became part of the agency's ongoing research.
Former FTC Chair Edith Ramirez, who served on the commission from 2010 through Trump’s inauguration, has also called for a comprehensive data privacy law. Enforcing baseline cybersecurity practices was another key issue under her tenure.
But despite the agency’s enthusiasm for novel technology, critics of the Obama-era FTC argued it was largely absent on antitrust enforcement. The agency's handling of an antitrust investigation into Google's search practices is perhaps the most contentious episode. While European regulators have leveled multiple antitrust charges against the company, the FTC closed its investigation into Google’s search practices in 2013.
In President Trump, however, some see the potential for an antitrust revival. In October, Trump’s senior economic advisor Peter Navarro attacked the proposed AT&T-Time Warner merger, and name checked the trust-busting Theodore Roosevelt.
Trump himself said the deal would concentrate too much power in one media company, seizing on the economic populism that fueled his successful run to the White House. But President Trump has since softened his remarks against the mega merger.