Policy

Republican senator slams conservative tech lobbyists to their faces

Sen. Mike Lee, a top lawmaker on antitrust, told right-leaning tech trade group NetChoice that conservative defenders of the industry were standing in the way of innovation.

Sen. Mike Lee

Sen. Mike Lee has challenged tech's antitrust defenders.

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Republican Sen. Mike Lee had harsh words for those on his own side who say that conservatives should support the tech antitrust status quo — and he delivered them directly to people making that case.

During a virtual speech Tuesday hosted by the right-leaning lobbying group NetChoice, which counts Big Tech companies like Amazon and Google among its membership, Lee said that conservative defenders of the industry were the ones politicizing antitrust, not those who question tech's power.

"Frankly one of the biggest impediments to opportunity and innovation is groups that go around telling conservatives that if you support the consumer welfare standard that you have to support Big Tech," said Lee, referring to antitrust analysis championed by conservatives like Robert Bork.

Tech companies have carefully watched Lee, the senior senator from Utah and the top GOP member of the Senate's subcommittee on competition law, because he's in a position to negotiate with — or resist — Democrats over how to rein in Big Tech, and his criticism of companies was growing louder even before the Tuesday speech.

Lee, who formerly chaired the panel, had flirted with skepticism of Big Tech in the past, but his position meant in recent years that he was one of several obstacles to progressive proposals to alter competition law, including a shift away from Bork's emphasis on price increases. Even in his speech on Tuesday, he accused progressives of trying to bring far-left economic and social theories into antitrust analysis, and to dupe conservatives into following along.

Yet over the last year or so, Lee has joined the strange bipartisan alliance interested in antitrust reform. He is one of several prominent Republicans, for instance, who claim that tech's alleged censorship of right-wing voices, personalities and topics demonstrates power by the companies and suggests that the bipartisan interest in antitrust reform may have merit.

"The idea that Big Tech operates in a functioning free market can no longer be taken as a serious position," Lee said.

In his speech, Lee essentially cast progressive antitrust reformers, including those in the House who have signed on to sweeping bipartisan proposals to rein in tech's power through competition law, on the same plane of danger as his conservative hosts.

"When well-compensated lobbyists and their nonprofit proxies attempt to pervert conservative economic and legal philosophy into a defense of Big Tech monopolists, antitrust policy and consumers suffer," Lee said.

Tech companies say they do not silence people based on their political beliefs and that they face robust competition. NetChoice in particular has been at the forefront of the defense, leveraging their political positioning on the right to assure lawmakers that the companies are just trying to maintain safe online environments and to innovate for customers before rivals do.

The group has also reiterated that any potential bias is protected by the First Amendment, and speech issues are not part of antitrust analysis. Lee agreed with the latter point, but he raised examples like Apple and Google's removal of the conservative social media site Parler from their mobile app stores following the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and social media suspensions of former President Donald Trump's accounts. He said this "prejudice and disdain shown towards conservatives" was a "warning sign" of a market power.

"Conservative anger at Big Tech is real, and it's entirely justified," Lee said.

Earlier in June, Lee released his own antitrust reform bill, and it had all the hallmarks of an opening bid for negotiation with Democrats. It would codify Bork's approach, but it would tighten rules around mergers that have allowed tech giants to grow to their massive size. It would also empower the Justice Department to collect massive damages on behalf of consumers.

At the end of the speech, a lawyer for NetChoice who was acting as master of ceremonies for the event called Lee a "hard act to follow."

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