The FTC's Feeder School
Bloomberg Businessweek|March 15, 2021
Laissez-faire George Mason University built a tech-funded pipeline to regulators, critics say
David McLaughlin, with Naomi Nix

The Tech Transparency Project (TTP), a watchdog group in Washington, details in a new report an unusually close relationship between the law school at Virginia’s George Mason University and the Federal Trade Commission. By helping shape the workforce of the FTC, the group claims, the school infused it with a laissez-faire philosophy favorable to the school’s tech donors.

The report throws a harsh light on the FTC’s hands-off approach to tech companies over the past decade. As the agency prepares to argue the lawsuit against Facebook Inc. that it filed late last year, seeking to break up the social media giant, it must contend with an inconvenient fact: It approved Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014—the very mergers it now seeks to undo. The FTC’s consent to those deals is cited by critics as evidence of a permissive attitude that allowed tech companies to grow into leviathans.

One explanation for its lenience, the TTP report charges, is that the industry used a corner of academia to capture the agency. According to the report, which was set to be published on March 12, Silicon Valley donated substantial sums to George Mason’s Antonin Scalia Law School, which built a pipeline of professors and graduates who went to work at the FTC. Dozens of people went from the school to the regulator—commissioners, bureau heads, attorney-advisers, legal interns—during the Obama and Trump administrations.

Under President Trump alone, professors and graduates of Scalia Law, and heads of affiliated programs at George Mason, served as the FTC chair, general counsel, policy planning head, and leaders of its three main divisions: the bureaus of competition, consumer protection, and economics.

Katie Paul, who heads the TTP, says an investigation is needed into “whether George Mason University has effectively become Big Tech’s back door into the FTC, giving the companies an undisclosed way to sway its decision- making and hobble enforcement action.”

Large tech companies have donated to two programs affiliated with Scalia Law, the Global Antitrust Institute and the Law & Economics Center. From January 2018 to the end of last year, Google donated $900,000, Amazon.com Inc. contributed $925,000, and Facebook Inc. gave $675,000, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek through a public records request. Google, Amazon, and Facebook declined to comment on their donations.

The law school says the ties between its faculty and the FTC aren’t unusual. Alison Price, a senior associate dean, says it’s common for professors to work for federal agencies and then return to their teaching jobs. “Since Scalia Law has special expertise and a relatively large faculty in antitrust, it’s logical that our faculty is called to serve with frequency,” she says. “But faculty don’t set policy; administrations do.”

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