WASHINGTON — There's a growing bipartisan appetite in Congress to crack down on big tech, with progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans preparing to flex the federal government's anti-monopoly powers.
The Senate began hearings this week on antitrust law. Senators expressed different philosophies and concerns, but they all agreed on at least one key point: Tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon have become too powerful.
It's the latest sign that Congress is ready to jump into a decadeslong vacuum created by marginal action from federal regulators as the tech sector became increasingly concentrated. Lawmakers discussed ways both to stop tech giants from growing larger in the future and steps that could be taken to chip away at their existing dominance.
“Why should any dominant corporation be able to merge with any other entity?” Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican, said in a Thursday hearing after rattling off a long list of companies owned by Google. “Why should Google, for instance, or Facebook be able to buy anything else given their dominant size?”
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, also a Republican, blasted tech giants for cornering the online ad market while local newsrooms endure round after round of cuts. Three companies — Google, Facebook, and Amazon — take in about two-thirds of all online advertising dollars. “Every one of these newsrooms have experienced the loss of reporters, which is the loss of journalism, which is the loss of insight of the people into issues,” said Blackburn.
But politicians still don’t agree about exactly what should be done. The Senate Antitrust subcommittee’s new Democratic chair, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, is sponsoring legislation to beef up government antitrust enforcement, tighten rules on which mergers are permissible, and force merging parties to prove their merger would not violate the law, among other measures. She’s trying to get bipartisan support for that and other reforms, which could include Australia-style requirements on tech giants to pay media outlets for producing news. Republicans are leery.
Sen. Mike Lee, the Republican ranking member on the Antitrust subcommittee, said at the beginning of the hearing he opposed government intervention and a “sweeping transformation” of antitrust laws. But before long he, too, was talking about the need to curtail big tech companies.
Lee questioned whether it’s even possible for upstart competitors to challenge platforms like Facebook and Twitter in the current environment. “‘Build your own’ sounds really nice in theory, but in this instance, I’m not sure it works in practice. Do we have an entry problem?” he asked.
One recurring theme from witnesses during the hearing was the once-robust enforcement of antitrust legislation that dramatically broke up rail and telecom monopolies, had fallen into disuse in modern times. At one point, Open Markets Institute Executive Director Barry Lynn argued that Amazon should be barred from both running a marketplace and selling products on that marketplace — competing against other sellers all while being able to use their sales information against them.
“There should never be competition between the provider of services and the customer of those services,” said Lynn. “It’s a conflict of interest. Traditionally we have always prohibited this — we can trace it back in US federal law to baking policy in the 1860s. There’s nothing new here, what’s new is that we haven’t applied these kinds of rules to these corporations today.”
The political movement toward cracking down on tech companies is anything but an organized coalition. Many Republicans have accused social media platforms of discriminating against conservative voices. Democrats have mostly rolled their eyes at this and argued that the real problem is a lack of moderation allowing disinformation and hate speech to flourish.
Klobuchar told BuzzFeed News before the hearing that she believes there is enough common ground to craft reforms that could get enough bipartisan support to pass a narrowly split Congress. “This is exactly what was going on in the Gilded Age,” she said, drawing a comparison from small companies trying to compete with the likes of Amazon to local farmers trying to negotiate with rail monopolies a century ago.
She closed the meeting Thursday by saying the subcommittee will hold more hearings on how to curtail monopoly power. “It feels like every century we take on laws in this way,” said Klobuchar. “And this is our moment.”