By: Cristiano Lima of Politico
Republicans are split over a new Democrat-led antitrust investigation of the tech industry, highlighting tensions between the GOP's growing criticism of companies like Google and Facebook and the party's traditional aversion to regulating business.
The House Judiciary Committee launched the probe Monday to look at whether Silicon Valley's tech titans have engaged in anti-competitive conduct — and some Republican lawmakers were quick to cheer their Democratic colleagues on.
“I'm all for it,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said of the House probe, while fellow Senate Judiciary member John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) told reporters that it's about time for Congress to examine how the online industry's growing power affects consumers.
“Look I’m very proud of the large social media companies," Kennedy told reporters. "They’re all American companies. They’ve been extraordinarily successful. That’s why they’re so big. But they’re not companies anymore — they’re countries.”
Other congressional Republicans tempered their enthusiasm, however. And others responded with distinct caution to the idea of Congress taking on an antitrust role that's normally in the hands of the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission — both of which have lately taken an interest in tech giants such as Google and Amazon.
“Antitrust is a highly technical inquiry, not something that lends itself to easy generalizations or blanket condemnations,” said a statement from Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who chairs the Senate Judiciary antitrust panel that would be in a prime position to oversee a probe. “This is why such investigations are best left to the antitrust agencies rather than Congress.”
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a leading critic of the tech industry, agreed that federal regulators would be “more effective” than Congress in policing the issue. He suggested that lawmakers should instead focus on issues like protecting consumers' data privacy.
The reactions underscore the dueling impulses of Republicans when it comes to tech in the Trump era. Many have railed against internet giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter, particularly over what they see as an anti-conservative bias in the way the companies manage content. Some have dangled the prospect of taking away the industry's longtime liability protections. But most Republicans also hew to the party's instinctive distaste for anything that smacks of regulation — let alone trust-busting.
The GOP's more hawkish tech critics include Graham, who has complained about the unregulated “wild wild West” of social media companies and said he's "certainly willing to look into their business model" as well. Another is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has accused digital platforms of suppressing conservative speech.
“I was glad to see the House launch that investigation and I’d love to see Senate Judiciary Committee do the same,” Cruz said.
House Democrats have yet to lay out the full scope of the probe. But Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), chairman of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee that is spearheading the congressional investigation, specifically named Google, Facebook and Amazon as a “significant part” of it during his announcement Monday. He said he's prepared to issue subpoenas and compel witnesses to testify if needed.
House Judiciary's top Republican, Doug Collins of Georgia, and Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the top Republican on its antitrust panel, initially praised the Democrats' probe, with Collins calling the effort a "bipartisan" opportunity to explore whether the tech industry remains competitive and “if necessary, to take action.”
But a GOP committee aide later sought to draw some boundaries around that support, suggesting the two Republican lawmakers are leery of some of the more aggressive tactics Cicilline mentioned.
Collins and Sensenbrenner have agreed to “less formal oversight activity to look into big tech," said the aide, who spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak on the record. The aide added that "there has not been bipartisan agreement to scrutinize, subpoena, compel testimony from or start a critical investigation” into specific companies.
That reluctance contrasts with some of the fiery rhetoric Republicans have brandished as they take aim at perceived bias on the part of Google, Facebook and Twitter, which deny any political favoritism in the way they manage their platforms.
Several GOP lawmakers, including Cruz and Hawley, have even floated the idea of revisiting a 1996 law that gives websites immunity from lawsuits over content their users have posted. It's a critical provision for the internet industry, shielding companies from expensive litigation if something libelous pops up in a search result, YouTube video or Facebook post, for example.
The tech antitrust issue isn't likely to dissipate for Republicans anytime soon, with the topic taking center stage in the Democratic presidential field. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has called for a breakup of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is backing calls to split up Facebook.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department has opened the door to its own possible antitrust investigation of Google, although it has yet to say whether it will launch such a probe. People familiar with DOJ's activities confirmed to POLITICO and other news organizations last week that the department has taken jurisdiction over any potential Google probe as part of a recent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission.
The Justice Department has also claimed jurisdiction over any antitrust claims involving Apple, while the FTC would handle any investigations of Facebook and Amazon, according to news reports and sources familiar with the cases. The two agencies periodically get together to divide up companies in industry groups and determine which agency will handle an investigation, should there be infractions that would warrant investigation, an FTC official has told POLITICO.
Whether any of these procedural moves will blossom into full-blown investigations, or result in fines or other penalties, is still unclear. But all four companies have faced complaints in both the U.S. and Europe from rivals who accuse them of abusing their dominant roles.