He Should Look Worried: Will the U.S. Government Go to War Against Big Tech?


He Should Look Worried: Will the U.S. Government Go to War Against Big Tech?

Elected representatives are not happy with the biggest tech companies, but do not agree on what to do next.

Late on Tuesday afternoon, the Democratic majority of the House Judiciary Committee released a long-awaited report, the results of its 14-month investigation into business practices by the major tech firms.

The report, titled “Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets,” was presented as a “majority staff report and recommendations,” and was presented as a “majority report,” meaning that it represented the conclusions of the Democratic majority, rather than the committee as a whole.

“Although these four corporations differ in important ways, studying their business practices has revealed common problems,” the conclusion of the report said.

“First, each platform now serves as a gatekeeper over a key channel of distribution. By controlling access to markets, these giants can pick winners and losers throughout our economy. They not only wield tremendous power, but they also abuse it by charging exorbitant fees, imposing oppressive contract terms, and extracting valuable data from the people and businesses that rely on them. Second, each platform uses its gatekeeper position to maintain its market power. By controlling the infrastructure of the digital age, they have surveilled other businesses to identify potential rivals, and have ultimately bought out, copied, or cut off their competitive threats. And, finally, these firms have abused their role as intermediaries to further entrench and expand their dominance. Whether through self-preferencing, predatory pricing, or exclusionary conduct, the dominant platforms have exploited their power in order to become even more dominant.”

The recommendations of the committee include, per CNBC, “imposing structural separations and prohibiting dominant platforms from entering adjacent lines of business,” as well as instructing antitrust agencies to shift the burden onto companies merging with one another to show that such mergers would not harm competition, and increased budgets for the FTC and Department of Justice Antitrust Division.

The probe came as part of the process in which the CEOs of four of the largest tech companies - Apple’s Tim Cook, Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg- testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust Issues. During the day-long hearing, the Democrats on the panel mostly asked the CEOs about what they called anticompetitive business practices, while the Republicans mainly asked questions about “political bias” on the part of the companies.

The release of the Democrats’ report followed media reports earlier on Tuesday that the Democrats and Republicans were in disagreement over what to include in the final report.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that the report by the House committee had been delayed, due to disagreements between the Democrats and Republicans on the committee over what to recommend. In fact, the Democrats on the committee had been prepared to release the report earlier this week, but delayed it, because they were “unable to gain Republican support.”

Meanwhile, ranking member Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who had stated during the July hearing that “Big Tech is out to get conservatives,” has “asked his colleagues not to endorse the Democratic-led report.” Another Republican on the committee, Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, has begun circulating another report called “The Third Way.”

According to a separate report by Reuters, Buck’s report claims that the Democratic version contains “a “thinly veiled call to break up” the big tech companies.

Rep. Buck did say, however, that he agrees with some of the Democrats’ recommendations, such as making it easier for the Justice Department and other government agencies to block mergers. But Buck said that he “was displeased that the report failed to address conservative allegations that some platforms have tried to stifle conservative voices,” Reuters said.

Both news reports state that the two parties agreed on the need to reign in the powers of the tech companies, but it appears that they have broken on how exactly to do that, and what exactly to do.

The report does not have the force of law, and an actual breakup of any tech company would likely require a government lawsuit, which was the action that it took to break up the Bell System in the early 1980s. The Department of Justice is reportedly on the verge of suing Google on antitrust grounds.

While both presidential candidates have been critical of big tech in the past, for different reasons, neither has committed to pursuing a breakup of big tech companies. Biden did say, in a 2019 interview, that a breakup of Facebook is “something we should take a really hard look at.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who also ran in the Democratic presidential primaries, had called for the “dismantling” of Amazon, Google, and Facebook, but Biden has never gone that far.

In the meantime, Republicans have introduced multiple pieces of legislation to weaken or overturn Section 230, the part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that says tech companies cannot be held liable for things their users post. The president tweeted “REPEAL SECTION 230!!!” on Tuesday morning.

 Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.

Image: Reuters.