Q&A: FTC commissioner says panel is still learning about online exchanges

By Carol Sliwa, Computerworld |  Government

Aspen, Colo. -- Federal Trade Commission (FTC) member Mozelle W. Thompson spoke last Friday at the Net Returns Conference organized here by The Industry Standard, one of ITworld.com's sister companies. Following his speech, Thompson spoke with Computerworld about the issues raised by online business-to-business marketplaces and the FTC's approach to monitoring them.

What are some of the issues that the FTC is interested in with regard to online business-to-business marketplaces?

A: We're learning more about the B2B exchanges. I think what's kind of interesting ... is that [the] term covers a lot of things, a lot of which is not new at all. We've been involved with [regulating business-to-business relationships] for a long time, and we have some rules about how businesses should conduct themselves to avoid antitrust problems, including avoiding opportunities for collusion and price fixing and joint purchases that have a negative market effect. What we're doing now is spending time with the folks who are involved in B2B exchanges to understand a little bit about what they're doing, but also to remind them and to get them to think a little bit more about some of those areas I just talked about.

In June, the FTC held a two-day workshop on B2B exchanges. What did you take away from that event?

FTC Commissioner Mozelle Thompson

A: I think they were among the most popular workshops we've ever had. There were 500 people [there]. I also think that we learned a lot and [the attendees] learned a lot. I expected to hear a lot more of the normal, hard-core tech responses: "Government should stay away. It shouldn't be involved." [But] I think that there are a lot of folks who actually see some real value to government involvement in two ways: one is to legitimize the fact that some of these B2B marketplaces can provide real value, and second is to give them some guidance as to how to avoid problems. The one thing that is very clear to me as a product of our workshops is that one size does not fit all. The marketplaces that have presented themselves ... are all different. Some are intended to provide real supply-chain [efficiencies]. Some are intended to provide services in conjunction with goods. Some are intended just to provide information. Some have different ownership structures. I think we're taking a circumspect approach and that we want to see what develops in the market in order to understand where competitive pressures are actually going to lie. And it's still a little early to find that.

In what other ways has the FTC attempted to raise awareness of potential trouble spots for online marketplaces?

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