Policy

Bad news for Big Tech: There's bipartisan agreement on antitrust reforms

Democrats and Republicans found common ground during the first House hearing on antitrust of the new Congress. Here's what that means for tech giants.

Bad news for Big Tech: There's bipartisan agreement on antitrust reforms

The House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee held their first hearing of the 117th Congress.

Photo: Tom Williams/Getty Images

During the first House antitrust hearing of the new Congress, Democratic chairman David Cicilline and Republican ranking member Ken Buck made it clear they intend to forge ahead with a series of bipartisan reform efforts that could cut into the power of the largest technology companies.

"We will work on a serious bipartisan basis to advance these reforms together," Cicilline said during his opening remarks Thursday.

Buck said he still doesn't agree with his Democratic counterpart's efforts to create "Glass-Steagall legislation" for the internet age, a sweeping reform that would prevent companies like Amazon from owning a marketplace while competing within it. Buck argued that could take a "chainsaw to the whole economy."

But the two top members of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee did tee up multiple pieces of antitrust legislation that could have a chance of making it through the Senate, which requires some Republican support. Buck, in particularly, identified three core areas where he sees a path forward, harkening back to his "Third Way" report last year:

  • Increasing funding for the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission's antitrust efforts. This is the lowest-hanging fruit in terms of bipartisan proposals to reform antitrust, and it plays a significant role in Senator Amy Klobuchar's recent antitrust legislation. Most antitrust experts take it as a given that the agencies need far more resources, and even expanded authorities, in order to bring the best cases against the Googles and Facebooks of the world.
  • Enacting data portability and interoperability rules. Legislation along these lines could require dominant platforms to make their services compatible with one another and make it easier for consumers to take their data with them. It was one of the key proposals laid out in the Democrats' antitrust report last year. Facebook has its own ideas about how that could look, and certain models pose serious privacy concerns. Progressives are likely to say that this kind of regulation does not go far enough. But each of the witnesses, which included a cross section of both progressives and antitrust skeptics, agreed Congress should explore creating rules around portability and interoperability.
  • Reforming the burden of proof in merger cases. Currently, the burden is on the government to prove that mergers are anti-competitive. But many reform proposals say it's time to flip that around, requiring dominant firms to justify why certain mergers aren't problematic. This could be a sticky area for many Republicans, who are likelier to say that this assumes the platforms are guilty until proven innocent. But it's been touted by key members of President Joe Biden's circle, including Bill Baer, former assistant attorney general for the United States Department of Justice Antitrust Division, who helped out with Biden's FTC transition team.

Cicilline said that he is planning to put out legislation after a series of hearings over the next month about antitrust. Those hearings are not likely to include any Big Tech CEOs, but are instead intended to delve into specific proposals around how to address the firms' outsized power. It's possible he could introduce several pieces of legislation, some with Republican sign-on and some without.

"Change is coming," Cicilline said at the hearing. "Laws are coming."

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