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Will Europe finally have the regulatory clout to tame the internet giants?

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WASHINGTON — Politicians in several countries around the world are turning toward regulation as a way to handle the titans of Silicon Valley.

Europe is growing frustrated at the pace of progress in reforming antitrust laws. It’s unclear whether the U.S. government is willing to embrace the same path or is convinced that the internet economy is too big and complex to be tampered with in this way.

And there’s one other possible course for regulators around the world: far more or far fewer of them, or at least fewer commissioners with direct contact with the top tech firms.

“We’re getting the impression that this will be a digital version of the Charter-Tribune speech,” said Law School Professor Andres Ding, referring to the repeal of the Smith Act by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984. “There is the potential to get rid of one central agency in a digital age and get rid of a large collection of attorneys who write rules.”

That would be bad news for the offices of the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, two federal regulators with direct power over monopoly and anticompetitive behavior.

Indeed, speaking last week at the Brookings Institution, FTC Chairman Joe Simons openly pondered whether there were ways of avoiding what he termed the “remarkable overlap” between consumer protection responsibilities and competition oversight at his agency.

So far, there is no consensus among top U.S. antitrust enforcers about how to approach the issue.

“There may be a case-by-case approach in Europe, but we don’t have that in the United States right now,” said one antitrust lawyer who requested anonymity because he does not work for the Justice Department.

Europe’s antitrust regulators see it differently.

“For too long,” Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager recently said, “economic actors engaged in telecoms and tech firms have been able to effectively avoid accountability for their actions by exploiting consumer trust and tolerance, not least in the digital context.

“Whether you’re talking about Amazon, Google, Facebook or Apple, they all control valuable content and marketplaces. They also bundle services or offer rebates, offer platforms for commerce and you can find other products and services in them. It’s the same with search engines, where they bundle the advertising and pay the search engine companies to take their search results.”

Competitors say the resulting restrictions erode competition and force them to compete with arms-length arrangements and share of revenue.

“While the commission has multiple functions in competition policy, there is only one leg we’ve been walking,” according to the WEContest, an online campaign led by six European agencies with direct antitrust oversight of tech companies. “We need to ensure the goals of the current agency regime are being served and that the commission, on behalf of citizens across Europe, will have the mandate to tackle the digital harms that are regularly emerging.”

“The Commission intends to clarify the scope of its mandate to ensure antitrust and competition policy can be applied effectively,” a spokesman for the agency said.

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