When future observers look back on the trajectory of the debate on antitrust actions against the dominant tech giants in the United States, they may note an increase in intensity in the first days of March 2021.
In just the past week, there have been multiple developments on the question of what should be done to address the scale of firms such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon in order to contain a corrosive imbalance of power and its effects on markets and on democracy.
Key developments include:
- News emerged that President Joe Biden will appoint Columbia University law professor Lina Khan to the Federal Trade Commission. Khan is known for reinvigorating thinking around antitrust harms in the age of platform economics. Along with the appointment of her Columbia colleague Tim Wu, another advocate for antitrust action who will join the National Economics Council, Khan’s appointment signals the Biden administration will take an aggressive stance on antitrust issues.
- Another Biden appointee, Vanita Gupta- up for a top post in the Justice Department- vowed to take strong action to protect competition. “I will just say based on my prior engagements with tech companies, I would highly doubt that they would be excited necessarily about my confirmation,” Gupta told Senators at her confirmation hearing.
- Facebook fired back at two antitrust suits filed against it in December 2020 by the FTC and by a coalition of 48 states Attorney General. The two lawsuits are “attacks on what Facebook did long ago,” Facebook said in a blog post, challenging the claims that Facebook has stifled competition or caused harm to consumers. “Facebook is wrong on the law and wrong on our complaint,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement to The Verge following the motion, which was expected. “We are confident in our case, which is why almost every state in this nation has joined our bipartisan lawsuit to end Facebook’s illegal conduct.”
- Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) led a Judiciary Committee hearing on the concentration of power in technology companies on Thursday, the first in what she says will be a series that will look at tech, app stores and the media, in addition to other sectors such as pharmaceuticals.
- In the House, antitrust hearings led by Representatives David Cicilline (D-RI) and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) continued, with this week’s installment looking at the effects of the advertising oligopoly on the news media. Along with the minority chair, Ken Buck (R-CO), Cicilline reintroduced a bill that would enable news publishers and broadcasters to collectively bargain with Google and Facebook.
“The back-to-back timing of the hearings underscores the broad momentum to address antitrust issues in Washington,” wrote The Washington Post. Hearings will continue into the Spring.
It should be no wonder- concerns about the size and power of the tech giants are bipartisan. A Consumer Reports survey released in 2020 confirmed Americans “have deep concerns about the outsize influence of America’s tech companies. Three out of 4 worry about the immense power wielded by platforms such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. And 8 in 10 say the mergers and acquisitions that helped them grow undermine competition and consumer choice.”
“I do think that there are people on both sides of the aisle who can unite around this idea that a few giant companies based in Silicon Valley, unilaterally getting to write the rules of the internet, is just not tenable,” tech journalist Will Oremus told Marketplace. But the tech firms are not presenting a unified defense. Instead, “some of them are getting at each other’s throats as this pressure intensifies,” notes Oremus.
But there are signs lawmakers are looking forward to the debate, such as Senator Klobuchar, who is known for her positive midwestern disposition.
“It feels like every century we take on these laws in a big way, and this is our moment,” said Senator Klobuchar at this week’s hearing. “It’s incredibly complex, but it also can be a lot of fun. If you enjoy history, and you enjoy complex matters, you’ve found the place.”
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.