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Antitrust

Big Tech Must Be Broken Up, says House Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman

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Photos at House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee hearing by Elijah Labby

July 30, 2020 – Several of the companies featured in Wednesday’s blockbuster big tech hearing need to be broken up, House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline, D-R.I., said at the conclusion of the nearly six-hour hearing.

“This hearing has made one fact clear to me: These companies as they exist today have monopoly power,” he said, speaking of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. “Some need to be broken up. This must end.”

And – even if breakup of any of these four companies is a way off, or ultimately unlikely to happen – regulation of areas of data usage and privacy appears much more likely.

The long-awaited meeting had no shortage of loaded questions, contentiousness, and fiery theatrics.

The hearing remotely brought together CEOs from four of the world’s most powerful internet companies. Representatives grilled the executives on alleged anti-competitive practices.

Yet the Judiciary Committee hearing room was largely empty, save for around a dozen reporters following social distancing guidelines. Yet from the earliest moments of the hearing, it was clear that the CEOs were in for an impassioned interrogation.

Chairman Cicilline began by noting that a conflict exists between Google’s mission to provide relevant information to those searching for it and its interest in keeping users on its platform and affiliated sites for as long as possible.

Similar lines of questioning ran throughout the day, spanning topics from the development requirements of Apple’s App Store to Amazon’s prioritization of so-called “essential products.”

At times, the lines of questioning gained a greater urgency.

Human rights in China, and in America

Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., mentioned several times the plight of the Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region, drawing ties between Google’s activities in China and the human rights abuses found there. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, similarly hit Google for such alleged misdeeds. Rep. Jordan said that the World Health Organization “obviously shills for China.”

Their comments contribute to an increasingly contentious governmental relationship with China.

“Cultural war” issues in America also factored into the discussion.

Rep. Kelly Armstrong noted that law enforcement requests for “geofence warrants” – which compel tech companies to hand over individuals’ private data to police bodies – had risen exponentially. Such policies have been objects of concern in the wake of increased protests surrounding the death of George Floyd.

The CEOs attempted to downplay the roles their companies play in the global technology arena. They did just that.

Steve Cook of Apple said that Apple did not control a majority of the market share in any of their product categories, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook said that Apple had a more widely-used messaging service, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon said that Amazon did not do several of its services as well as the other companies featured.

However, if their goal was to convince the congressmen that their companies were not sufficiently powerful to perform the misdeeds of which they were accused, the representatives did not seem convinced.

Are changes to the antitrust laws necessary?

No member of Congress made a clear case that changes were necessary to the United States’ antitrust laws. Indeed, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, said that there is no need for change in that area.

Sensenbrenner instead endorsed utilizing the laws on the books. Still, member of Congress criticized the Federal Trade Commission’s past merger approvals.

With no innovative legislative solutions resulting from Congress and no real admittance of anti-competitive practices from big tech CEOs, their appearance before lawmakers turned out to be less promising than many viewers may have hoped.

The hearing failed to produce any legislative proposal to break up tech monopolies, failed to fully address the impacts these businesses have on consumers, and got sidetracked over concerns on content moderation, foreign influence, and free speech.

Members of Congress were prepared with legitimate evidence of anti-competitive business practices, but failed to offer a solution to creating more competitive environments.

Election interference claims against Google

Reps. Jim Jordan and Greg Steube said that they were concerned about electoral interference and alleged anti-conservative bias at Google and Facebook.

Jordan inquired of Google’s Sundar Pichai whether he and his company would conspire to sway the election in favor of Joe Biden. Steube said that he heard multiple reports of his congressional office’s emails getting lost in the spam folders of those in his district that had long expressed interest in supporting him.

However, there was inter-representative conflict as well.

When Jordan raised concerns of electoral interference at Google, Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Penn. said he was dealing in “fringe conspiracy theories.”

This exchange devolved into Cicilline shouting and attempting to gavel Jordan back into order, with Jordan shouting back and Rep. Jamie Raskin yelling at Jordan to “Put on your mask!”

But while the hearing was long on drama, it was relatively short on commitments from the executives. The CEOs pledged to further ethnic inclusion and equity in their companies, but said that they would follow up with the individual representatives’ offices about matters that may have proven too risky to speak about publicly.

Editor’s Note: Reporter Jericho Casper contributed to this story.

See additional story on CEO comments.

Elijah Labby was a Reporter with Broadband Breakfast. He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and now resides in Orlando, Florida. He studies political science at Seminole State College, and enjoys reading and writing fiction (but not for Broadband Breakfast).

Antitrust

Key Republican: Anticompetitive Practices of Big Tech Present a Threat to Innovation

Rep. Ken Buck said tech companies’ practices are anticompetitive and threaten innovation, free speech and national security.

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Screenshot of Rep. Ken Buck from the Heritage Foundation webcast

WASHINGTON, January 13, 2023 — Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., argued on Wednesday that the anticompetitive practices of large tech companies present a threat to innovation, free speech and national security — and that even Republicans who are traditionally wary of antitrust legislation should view it as a key tool for curbing Big Tech’s power.

“I’m a free market person — I apply that principle to just about everywhere — but if you don’t have a market, you can’t have a free market,” Buck said at a Heritage Foundation event. “And when Google controls 94 percent of the online searches in this country, you don’t have a free market.”

Buck said that it was the responsibility of Congress to actively shape antitrust law, rather than “leaving it up to the courts to create something over the next 30 years.”

Among the several anti-Big Tech bills that have been proposed, Buck highlighted as his priority legislation that would prevent certain companies from acting as both buyers and sellers in digital advertising markets.

The bill applies to companies that generate more than $20 billion in digital ad revenues — specifically targeting Google and Facebook — and has so far received bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate.

Tech companies have spent millions of dollars lobbying against proposed antitrust bills, making it politically precarious for some members of Congress to support them, Buck said. Still, he urged his colleagues to consider the harms allegedly caused by social media platforms.

“We know that Instagram recognized that there was body shaming going on, there was depression among teenage girls, there was a higher suicide rate among teenage girls, and they doubled down,” Buck said. “They didn’t just say, ‘We’ve got to deal with this issue’ — they decided they were going to start marketing to a younger group.”

More competition in the market could give teens and parents access to better alternatives, Buck said, but the power held by the largest platforms makes it nearly impossible for competitors to emerge.

Rep. Buck linked free speech issues for tech industry to antitrust

“How do you have free speech, how do you have competition in the marketplace when you’ve got four companies that are so big that they can wipe out any kind of competitor?” he asked.

Buck has long been a critic of Big Tech, and introduced legislation to ban the TikTok app from U.S. government devices more than a year before similar legislation was passed as part of the bipartisan spending bill in December. This decision had nothing to do with fear of TikTok as a competitor to U.S. companies, he said.

“TikTok is dangerous, not because of its competition in the marketplace — I think it’s healthy in that sense; if Microsoft or some company had bought it, I’d be all in favor of that kind of competition for Facebook — but the bottom line is [that] how it’s being used by an adversary is dangerous and concerning.”

Although the TikTok ban won broad Republican support, alongside a variety of proposals to target tech companies’ privacy or content moderation practices, many antitrust bills have been less popular.

Buck has been open about his struggles in convincing other Republicans to pursue antitrust action, telling The Washington Post in March that “the antitrust bills that we are currently considering will not move forward under Republican leadership, and that’s been a very clear signal that has been sent.”

And now that the House is under Republican control, several experts have predicted that antitrust legislation is unlikely to move forward any time soon.

In an op-ed published Wednesday, President Joe Biden called on members of Congress to overcome partisan disagreements and keep tech companies in check by passing digital privacy, antitrust and content moderation legislation.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, responded to Biden’s comments in a statement that agreed with the need for privacy and content moderation action but did not mention antitrust.

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Antitrust

‘Time is Now’ for Separate Big Tech Regulatory Agency, Public Interest Group Says

‘We need to recognize that absolutely the time is now. It is neither too soon nor too late.’

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Photo of Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge

WASHINGTON, June 21, 2022 – Public Knowledge, non-profit public interest group, further advocated Thursday support for the Digital Platform Commission Act introduced in the Senate in May that would create a new federal agency designed to regulate digital platforms on an ongoing basis.

“We need to recognize that absolutely the time is now. It is neither too soon nor too late,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge.

The DPCA, introduced by Senator Michael Bennet, D-CO., and Representative Peter Welch, D-VT., would, if adopted, create a new federal agency designed to “provide comprehensive, sector-specific regulation of digital platforms to protect consumers, promote competition, and defend the public interest.”

The independent body would conduct hearings, research and investigations all while promoting competition and establishing rules with appropriate penalties.

Public Knowledge primarily focuses on competition in the digital marketplace. It champions for open internet and has openly advocated for antitrust legislation that would limit Big Tech action in favor of fair competition in the digital marketspace.

Feld published a book in 2019 titled, “The Case for the Digital Platform Act: Breakups, Starfish Problems and Tech Regulation.” In it, Feld explains the need for a separate government agency to regulate digital platforms.

Digital regulation is new but has rapidly become critical to the economy, continued Feld. As such, it is necessary for the government to create a completely new agency in order to provide the proper oversight.

In the past, Congress empowered independent bodies with effective tools and expert teams when it lacked expertise to oversee complex sectors of the economy but there is no such body for digital platforms, said Feld.

“The reality is that [Congress] can’t keep up,” said Welch. This comes at a time when antitrust action continues to pile up in Congress, sparking debate across all sides of the issue.

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Antitrust

FTC Commissioner Concerned About Antitrust Impact on Already Rising Consumer Prices

Noah Phillips said Tuesday he wants the commission to think about the impact of antitrust rules on rising prices.

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Screenshot of Federal Trade Commissioner Noah Phillips

WASHINGTON, May 17, 2022 – Rising inflation should be a primary concern for the Federal Trade Commission when considering antitrust regulations on Big Tech, said Commissioner Noah Phillips Tuesday.

When considering laws, “the important thing is what impact it has on the consumer,” said Phillips. “We need to continue to guard like a hawk against conduct and against laws that have the effect of raising prices for consumers.”

Current record highs in the inflation rate, which means money is becoming less valuable as products become more expensive, has meant Washington must become sensitive to further price increases that could come out of such antitrust legislation, the commissioner said.

Phillips did not comment on how such movies would mean higher prices, but that signals, such as theHouse Judiciary Committee’s antitrust report two years ago, that reign in Big Tech companies and bring back enforcement of laws could mean higher prices. He raised concerns that recent policies are prohibiting competition rather than facilitating it.

This follows recent concerns that the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, currently awaiting Senate floor consideration, will inhibit America’s global competitiveness by weakening major American companies, thus impairing the American economy. That legislation would prohibit platform owners from giving preference to their products against third-party products.

This act is one of many currently under consideration at Congress, including Ending Platform Monopolies Act and Platform Competition and Opportunity Act.

Small businesses have worried that by enacting some legislation targeting Big Tech, they would be impacted because they rely on such platforms for success.

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