Capitalism without competition is exploitation, President Biden said Friday in signing an executive order that instructs regulators to take a hard line on Big Tech companies and seeks a raft of pro-consumer changes, such as slashing the cost of hearing aids, exposing airline fees and beef products that are raised abroad but labeled American-made.
The order instructs the Federal Trade Commission to scrutinize how dominant internet players block out competition through “killer acquisitions” of other platforms and draft rules that curb how much sensitive information from users they can collect.
It instructs the secretary of Health and Human Services to allow hearing aids to be sold over-the-counter, while internet providers will be forced to list their full prices so people can comparison shop.
Airlines, meanwhile, will be compelled to disclose hidden fees upfront and provide refunds if they don’t deliver baggage on time.
Mr. Biden said key sectors have been consolidated into the hands of a few powerful players, raising costs for everyone while making it more difficult for workers to demand better wages and conditions.
“Rather than competing for consumers, they are consuming their competitors,” he said in a White House ceremony. “No more bad mergers that will lead to mass layoffs.”
The sprawling order includes 72 initiatives affecting more than a dozen agencies and would target fines and hurdles that raise costs for consumers.
“If companies want to win your business, they have to go out and they have to up their game,” Mr. Biden said. “Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism, it’s exploitation.”
Some of the moves are holdovers. Mr. Biden said the prior administration was supposed to promulgate rules to allow consumers to buy hearing aids over-the-counter. The aids cost an average of $5,000 and must be acquired through a doctor or specialist.
The order also promotes an idea that gathered steam during the Trump years — encouraging the Food and Drug Administration to help states and tribes import drugs from Canada.
FreedomWorks, a nonprofit that advocates for smaller government, called Mr. Biden’s signing ceremony a power grab that tries to circumvent Congress.
“This grab-bag EO includes everything from a ridiculous ban on voluntary noncompete agreements to granting the FTC unprecedented power over mergers and acquisitions,” FreedomWorks President Adam Brandon said. “In particular, the provisions on prescription drug pricing and transportation represent a gross overreach of executive authority. Biden is making clear that he cares more about his own power than the will of the American people.”
The White House compared the order to President Theodore Roosevelt’s trust-busting efforts in the early 1900s and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “supercharged” antitrust enforcement decades later.
The moves against Big Tech reflect modern concerns and seem aimed at companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon.
Rules on acquisitions come amid a swirling debate about Facebook’s influence after its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp years ago. Social media companies have come under fire from conservatives, too, though mainly over concerns about censorship or rules that kick people off the platforms.
Mr. Biden’s order appears to target Amazon by ordering the FTC to scrutinize large retail platforms that can monitor how small businesses’ products sell and then use that data to launch their competing versions.
“Because they run the platform, they can also display their own copycat products more prominently than the small businesses’ products,” the White House said in a fact sheet.
The order also takes cellphone manufacturers to task, instructing the FTC to write rules that allow users to do their own repairs or get third-party shops to fix their phones so companies cannot corner the market with costly and time-consuming repairs, parts and diagnostics.
Among notable provisions, the order encourages the FTC to ban or limit noncompete clauses that bar employees from seeking a better gig at a competing company. Mr. Biden said the clauses affect 36 million to 60 million workers and thwart employees from seeking better wages or conditions elsewhere, though companies say the clauses are an important tool in protecting proprietary information from rivals.
Mr. Biden said the rules are too far-reaching, citing clauses that bar people from working in a neighboring region or, in some cases, fast-food restaurant rules that prevent workers from heading to a rival.
“Is there a trade secret about what’s inside that patty?” Mr. Biden said.
Mr. Biden also will ask the FTC to ban unnecessary occupational licensing requirements. The White House says almost 30% of jobs in the U.S. require a license, up from less than 5% in the 1950s, and it is too hard to transfer licenses from state to state.