House panel eyes antitrust crackdown on Big Tech companies


The Democratic chairman of the House antitrust panel promised on Thursday to propose legislation to crack down on Big Tech, a move that has bipartisan support but must surmount disagreements over censoring hate speech and eliminating liability protections for social media companies.

Rep. David Cicilline, Rhode Island Democrat, said at a hearing that “change is coming” for companies such as Google and Facebook.

“According to multiple surveys over the past year, Republicans and Democrats agree on an overwhelming basis that these companies have too much power and that Congress must curb this dominance,” Mr. Cicilline said. “Today’s hearing begins the process of doing just that. Mark my words: Change is coming, laws are coming.”

The antitrust panel’s top-ranking Republican, Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, sounded eager to work with his Democratic counterparts.

Mr. Buck identified three ideas likely to gain bipartisan support to overhaul antitrust policy for Big Tech: increasing funding for antitrust enforcement agencies, enacting data portability and interoperability requirements, and overhauling the burden of proof in merger cases.

“Whether their conduct is directed at potential competitors or at politicians and citizens they don’t agree with, these companies are able to act with complete impunity because of their status as monopolies,” Mr. Buck said. “The status quo is not working and we must act. But the key is to make sure that we do not take a chainsaw to the whole economy, but rather we should implement a scalpel-like approach for Big Tech.”

Mr. Cicilline led a 16-month investigation of Big Tech resulting in a 450-page report in the fall that took aim at tech’s dominant players — Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. On Thursday, Mr. Cicilline said new legislation was imminent because Americans have had enough of the companies.

He said the new policy ought to focus on whether the best businesses with better ideas can trump the biggest companies with the largest lobbying budgets, a view that wasn’t opposed by GOP lawmakers. But Republicans grew concerned when Mr. Cicilline turned his attention to using antitrust for “reckoning with domestic terrorism and hate speech.”

Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, said he thought Mr. Cicilline was suggesting that more censorship is needed online.

Instead, Mr. Jordan advocated for scrapping Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives tech platforms legal liability protections from content posted by their users.

“I want them to stop censoring conservatives, I want them to stop censoring speech, I want them to embrace the First Amendment,” Mr. Jordan said. “And frankly, if platforms are going to continue to undermine the First Amendment and other liberties that Americans enjoy, Section 230 protection should go away. It’s really that basic and I hope that’s what this subcommittee will focus on.”

Mr. Jordan argued that breaking up tech’s dominant players would not by itself solve conservatives’ concerns about censorship and that Section 230 should remain on the chopping block.

“If in fact they’re broken up, it seems to me we would still need the overhaul of 230 because there’s nothing to prohibit platforms from engaging in the same kind of behavior we see now with discriminatory action against conservatives,” Mr. Jordan said.

While lawmakers argued over which tools were best to crack down on Big Tech, several prominent tech platforms set their sights on growing larger and fighting off challenges to their power.

Twitter told the Securities and Exchange Commission in a filing on Thursday that it intended to double its annual revenue by 2023, to a goal of $7.5 billion. It plans to monetize its daily active users, which the company hopes to increase to 315 million by the end of 2023. Twitter said it had 152 million monetizable daily active users at the end of 2019.

Google, already identified by lawmakers as a dominant player, is battling the Justice Department’s antitrust lawsuit in federal court. A federal judge held a conference hearing on Thursday to determine the scope of discovery that Google would be forced to comply with in response to the Justice Department and states’ attorneys general.

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