In America’s current political climate, there is a infinitesimally small number of issues on which Democrats and Republicans can make common cause in Congress. But if there is one area of policy where there is the political will for meaningful bipartisan legislation, then that area is undoubtedly big tech. Over the years, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have repeatedly railed against the oligopolistic tendencies of Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook, arguing that all four giants violate antitrust laws designed to encourage competition and protect consumers from exploitation. This joint grievance has brought together some of the most unlikely allies in Congress who can at least agree that too few companies have too much power in the tech world.
One reason these strange alliances have come about is that Big Tech doesn’t map directly to traditional left-right lines. The technologies that underlie big tech, like cloud computing and algorithmic sorting, are almost impossible for the average person to understand, leaving lawmakers with very little material to push a clear policy agenda. Some conservatives have dubiously claimed that Big Tech is “censoring” right-wing voices. But even then, there is significant disagreement among Republicans as to whether tightened antitrust laws would actually solve the “censorship” problem.
That point was made clear Tuesday in a Fox News op-ed published by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a libertarian conservative known for his relatively unorthodox political views. In it, Paul questions the economic wisdom of breaking up the Big Four and urges his fellow Republicans to stand by the free-market ideals for which the party is known.
“While many of my colleagues share my anger at big tech companies [over censorship], they do not share my principles of free enterprise. Instead, the bipartisan lust for revenge inspired an antitrust crusade against Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter,” he writes, “depriving consumers of the technological innovation that only free market competition can provide.”
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To make his point, Paul argues that consumers benefit from a popular business tactic in big tech called “vertical integration,” in which a company streamlines and cheapens its operations by owning multiple tiers of production. Paul cites Apple as an example: “Apple not only makes the iPhone, but also acquired AuthenTec, which developed the fingerprint ID sensor to unlock the device. Apple also sells its products through its own retail stores, and this integration allows it to ensure the quality of its product and pass savings on to consumers.”
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At first glance, it’s easy to see why consumers could benefit from vertical integration: 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 Republican peers would like to make Apple’s model much harder to sustain, arguing that it engages in anti-competitive practices by simply buying up smaller tech companies and incorporating their innovations into its own product line.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., introduced the “Trust-Busting for the Twenty-First Century Act,” legislation that would “prohibit all mergers and acquisitions by companies with a market capitalization greater than $100 billion.” Hawley’s measure specifically prohibits “vertical” mergers and would affect over 150 major companies, including Apple and Amazon. “Amazon should be dissolved,” he said in a press release last year. “No company should be able to control e-commerce AND privilege their own products on the same platform AND control the cloud.”
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Hawley’s bill is inspired by a common belief among antitrust advocates: competition is good because it forces companies to continually improve their products while maximizing consumer welfare.
“Basically, it’s about a consumer’s ability to choose another option if they’re not satisfied with a particular product,” said Charlotte Slaiman, competition policy director at Public Knowledge, in an interview with Salon. “[Companies] want to do better to keep customers. If they see that they are losing customers, they will change their behavior to offer a better product.”
For Paul, this general feeling may be true. But increasing government oversight, he argues, will hurt the innovations that could emerge from controversial acquisitions. “Yesterday’s innovations would likely have been prevented by today’s antitrust proposals,” he writes. “For example, Microsoft bought Forethought, which improved 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. When antitrust threats were stronger, these acquisitions – and innovations – may never have happened.”
Certainly, there is a heated debate among experts as to whether mergers and acquisitions in the technology sector lead to innovation. But as this debate rages on, many Republicans in Congress are already firing on a crackdown of epic proportions.
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In January of this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, a nondiscrimination law that would prevent companies like Google and Facebook from using their platforms to disadvantage their competitors’ products or services. The measure, supported by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Cynthia Lummis, R-Wy., would cover at least 50 large technology companies. In February, the same committee passed the Open App Markets Act, a narrower bill co-sponsored by Senator Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., that would prevent companies like Apple and Google from giving preferential treatment to their own apps.
That being said, the GOP isn’t entirely in agreement on which bills, if any, should ultimately reach the president’s desk.
Last June, during a bipartisan push to get a barrage of anti-tech legislation through the lower chamber, House Republicans split over whether the bills took the right approach.
“The premise that big is bad, or that we should have legislation that defines that companies are treated differently just because they’ve achieved a certain value, I think that’s inherently bad legislation,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., told The Hill at the time. “And I was looking forward to some markup that I think we should insist on changing some of that.”
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Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif, and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, criticized the bill as a power grab by Democrats that failed to address “censorship” concerns.
“The House Republican plan to fight big tech is being influenced by nothing other than a commitment to free speech and free enterprise,” Mark Bednar, a spokesman for McCarthy, told the Wall Street Journal.
Adam Kovacevich, CEO of the Chamber of Progress, a center-left coalition of tech companies, said Republicans generally fall into two camps when it comes to big tech.
“One is Rand Paul who says, ‘Let’s go to Parler and Truth Social and create our own stuff’ – and this competition is going to solve things. The free market answer,” he said in an interview with Salon. “And then the other is…essentially, let’s use our political power to require tech companies to…make policies that are consistent with our cultural values.”
Still, there remains a separate contingent of Republicans who seem more concerned about the sheer size of Big Tech than a problem in and of itself. The biggest challenge for this group, Kovacevich suggested, will be locating the “pain point” on the consumer side.
“We don’t see that in technology,” he told Salon. “For example, big-tech anti-discrimination antitrust laws 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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