GOP splits in effort to clamp down on Big Tech

In the current political climate in the United States, there are fewer and fewer issues on which Democrats and Republicans in Congress can make common cause. But if there is one area of ​​policy where there is political willpower for meaningful bipartisan legislation, it is undoubtedly Big Tech. Over the years, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have repeatedly protested the oligopolistic tendencies of Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook, arguing that all four giants violate antitrust laws designed to foster competition and protect consumers from being exploited. . This shared grievance has brought together some of the most unlikely allies in Congress who can, at the very least, agree that few companies in the tech world have much power.

One reason these strange alliances have materialized is because Big Tech doesn’t directly map the traditional lines of left and right. The technologies that underpin Big Tech, such as cloud computing and algorithmic classification, are nearly impossible for the average person to understand, leaving lawmakers with very little material to advance a clear policy agenda. Some conservatives have dubiously claimed that Big Tech “censors” right-wing voices. But even so, there is significant disagreement among Republicans over whether the “censorship” problem would actually be remedied by beefed up antitrust laws.

This point was brought up Tuesday in a Fox News editorial published by Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., a libertarian conservative known for his relatively unorthodox political views. In it, Paul casts doubt on the economic prudence of disbanding the Big Four and calls on his fellow Republicans to uphold the free-market ideals for which the party is known.

“While many of my peers share my anger at big tech companies [over censorship], they don’t share my free market principles. Instead, the bipartisan zeal for revenge inspired an antitrust crusade against Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter,” he writes. deprive consumers of the technological innovation that only free market competition can provide”.

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To make his case, Paul argues that consumers benefit from a popular business tactic at Big Tech called “vertical integration,” in which a company simplifies and lowers its operations by having multiple stages of production. As an example, Paul cites Apple: “Apple not only manufactures the iPhone, but also acquired AuthenTec, which developed the fingerprint identification sensor to unlock the device. Apple also sells its products through its own Like McDonald’s, Apple uses integration to ensure the quality of its product and pass the savings on to consumers.”

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At first glance, it’s easy to see why vertical integration can benefit consumers: They don’t have to go through the arduous task of independently purchasing all the products and services that come with the iPhone. But many of Paul’s fellow Republicans would like to make Apple’s model much more difficult to sustain, arguing that it engages in anticompetitive practices by simply buying smaller tech companies and incorporating their innovations into its own product line.

Senator Josh Hawley, R-Mo., introduced the “Trust Recovery Act for the 21st Century,” a bill that would “prohibit all mergers and acquisitions of companies with a market capitalization greater than $100 billion.” Hawley’s move specifically bans “vertical” mergers and would affect more than 150 large corporations, including Apple and Amazon. “Amazon should be spun off,” he said in a press release last year. “No company should be able to control e-commerce AND privilege its own products on the same platform AND control the cloud.”

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Hawley’s bill is fueled by a prevailing belief among antitrust advocates: competition is good because it forces companies to continually improve their products and, in the process, maximize consumer welfare.

“Fundamentally, it’s about the consumer’s ability to choose another option if they’re not satisfied with a particular product,” Charlotte Slaiman, director of competition policy at Public Knowledge, said in an interview with Salon. “[Companies] wants to do better to keep customers. If they realize they are losing customers, they will change their behavior to provide a better product.”

For Paul, this general sentiment may be true. But increased government oversight, he argues, will undermine innovations that can emerge from contentious takeovers. “Yesterday’s innovations would likely have been thwarted by today’s antitrust proposals,” he writes. “For example, Microsoft bought Forethought, which made it possible to improve PowerPoint. In 2005, Google bought a failed dating site called YouTube and helped turn it into a video-sharing platform visited by over 2 billion users. every month. Had the threat of antitrust litigation been stronger, these acquisitions – and innovations – may never have been made.”

To be sure, there is a vigorous debate among experts about whether mergers and acquisitions in technology lead to innovation. But as the debate rages, many Republicans in Congress are already seeking a crackdown of epic proportions.

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In January of this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee moved forward with the “American Innovation and Choice Online Act,” a non-discrimination bill that would bar companies like Google and Facebook from using their platforms to harm their competitors’ products or services. The measure, supported by Senators Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Cynthia Lummis, R-Wy., would cover at least 50 large companies in the tech sector. In February, that same committee passed the “Open App Markets Act,” a more restrictive bill, co-sponsored by Senator Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., that would restrict companies like Apple and Google from giving preferential treatment to their own apps. .

That said, the GOP isn’t fully in sync on which accounts, if any, should make it to the chair’s desk.

Last June, during a bipartisan effort to advance a series of anti-technology bills in the lower house, House Republicans were divided over whether the bills took the right approach.

“The premise that big is bad, or that we should have legislation that defines companies being treated differently simply because they’ve grown to a certain value, I think is inherently bad legislation,” said Representative Darrell Issa, R-Calif. ., told The Hill at the time. “And I was looking forward to a markup where I think we should insist that some things be changed.”

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Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif, and Representative Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, criticized the legislative package as a power grab by Democrats that failed to address concerns around “censorship.” .

“The House Republican plan to tackle big technology will not be influenced by anything other than a commitment to free speech and free enterprise,” McCarthy spokesman Mark Bednar told The Wall Street Journal.

Adam Kovacevich, CEO of the House of Progress, a coalition of center-left tech companies, said Republicans generally fall into two Big Tech camps.

“One is Rand Paul saying, ‘Let’s go to Parler and Truth Social and create our own stuff’ – and that competition will sort things out. The free market response,” he said in an interview with Salon. “And then the other is… essentially: we’re going to use our political power to demand that tech companies make… policies that are in line with our cultural values.”

Still, there remains a separate contingent of Republicans who seem to be more concerned about Big Tech’s size as an issue in itself. The main challenge for this group, suggested Kovacevich, will be locating the “pain point” at the consumer’s end.

“We don’t see that in technology,” he told Salon. “For example, Big Tech’s antitrust laws around non-discrimination are primarily driven by [concerns around] companies that would benefit [discrimination]”, he said. “But it’s not driven by a voter looking at this and saying, ‘I’m demanding that something change here.’ And that’s really important.”

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