ANALYSIS: What Is The GOP Antitrust Revival, And Why Are Conservatives Conflicted?

Michael Ginsberg Congressional Correspondent
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As Republicans and Democrats gear up to target Silicon Valley, conservatives in Congress are charting a path forward on antitrust with new legislation.

Although Democrats and Republicans disagree on some of the problems created by Big Tech, they have become increasingly united under a similar view that they need to address entities with seemingly unmitigated power.

The antitrust revival is currently being led on the left by Democrats like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Democratic Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline. They generally believe that major companies are too politically and economically influential.

On the right, it is led by Republicans such as Missouri Rep. Josh Hawley and Republican Colorado Rep. Ken Buck, who take aim at tech companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. They worry that big tech companies, whose staffers are more liberal, can censor conservative users with impunity.

Hawley told the Daily Caller that he is most concerned about the political and economic influence major tech companies hold.

“Combating the colossal accumulation of power by mega-corporations must be the focus of antitrust legislation,” he said. “That means cracking down on mergers and acquisitions by mega-corporations, strengthening antitrust enforcement, and preventing companies from dominating multiple industries simultaneously.”

However, Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee, including Buck and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, did not sign on to a report published in October 2020 by House Judiciary Democrats that took aim at the so-called “big four” tech companies.

In the report, Democrats argued that those companies “run the marketplace while also competing in it — a position that enables them to write one set of rules for others, while they play by another, or to engage in a form of their own private quasi regulation that is unaccountable to anyone but themselves.”

That position is seemingly similar to Hawley’s own.

Republicans, such as Jordan, said that the Democrats failed to address concerns about bias against conservatives on social media platforms as well as censorship.

Democrats repeatedly refused to acknowledge Big Tech’s bias against conservatives” during the investigation, Jordan wrote in a memo explaining his opposition to the report. “The Democrats’ approach in their investigation and staff report suggests that they desire Big Tech to censor even more speech. By failing to take Republican views seriously, Democrats developed and presented a lopsided story about digital markets with little heed to a chief concern of conservatives.” (RELATED: Microsoft Censors Conservatives, Should Be Subject To Antitrust Laws, Jim Jordan Says)

Despite those disagreements, however, Buck continues to view antitrust legislation as an opportunity for bipartisan cooperation.

“There are a number of areas of concern” that could be targets of legislation, he told the Daily Caller, including “crushing competition, censoring conservatives, invasion of privacy.”

“Making sure we have competition when it comes to search engines and social media platforms is essential.”

A lack of competition harms conservative users by giving them fewer options, Buck said. “Look at the cable-news industry. Look at the newspaper industry. Nobody says that cable news is censoring individuals. We know there are biases on cable news channels, but they aren’t censoring.”

Hawley agrees with those targets.

“Monopolistic companies threaten Americans’ freedom just as much as unchecked government power. No business should be so big or so powerful that it can override the will of the people,” he said.

Hawley introduced a bill in April that would prohibit mergers involving companies that hold market caps of over $100 billion.

Buck is a co-sponsor of five bills that have drawn support from both Republicans and Democrats and are intended to address those concerns.Democratic co-sponsors include Pennsylvania Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse, Cicilline, New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, and Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal. (RELATED: Prominent Conservative Groups Back Colorado Rep. Ken Buck For Top Role On House Antitrust Panel)

He pointed to a provision of the 1996 Telecommunications Act that allows a customer to keep the same phone number when he or she switches carriers. This provision, known as portability, could allow individuals to monetize their own internet search histories when applied to search engines like Google, Buck says.

Phone companies are legally different from internet service providers and Big Tech companies, University of Florida economics professor Mark Jamison explained to the Daily Caller. Phone companies are known as common carriers, meaning that the phone companies have to “faithfully deliver exactly what they receive.”

The common carrier can not “discriminate among different types of costumers if they have market power,” he said. “This is different from what the Big Tech companies actually do. They don’t really carry content on someone else’s behalf. The common carrier model doesn’t fit perfectly, so people would have to make adjustments to it” via legislation.

Buck explained that antitrust laws need to be updated.

“The Sherman Act was passed in 1888, before the light bulb was invented. We’re trying to apply concepts from the Sherman Act to markets that were never even thought of when the law was written. We have to update the law.”

“These companies are so big, and they have their tentacles in so many different areas,” Buck continued. “The different areas are really complimenting and reinforcing their monopoly power. Apple, for example, uses its monopoly power to benefit Apple Music over Spotify,” he said.

Self-preferencing can be beneficial to users, Jamison responds. “Suppose that Google developed a marketplace in competition with Amazon. Every time someone did a Google search for an electronic product, Google said, ‘here’s what I’m offering.’ Now that makes Google’s product line more profitable.”

“That means that every search that someone does with Google is now more profitable for Google. So Google will invest even more in making its search better for consumers because it can sell them better things.”

Consumer welfare is the current standard for antitrust law violations, and has been since the 1980s. Before the consumer welfare standard, politicians used the threat of antitrust enforcement to extract concessions from political opponents. Lyndon Johnson threatened to block a bank merger in 1964 in order to extract more favorable news coverage from the Houston Chronicle. Richard Nixon threatened ABC, NBC, and CBS with antitrust action over their Vietnam War coverage.

Politicized antitrust action is still a concern. Warren threatened in March to “break up Big Tech” for “heckl[ing] senators with snotty tweets” after Amazon tweeted about corporate tax codes.

“What we don’t want to do is go back to the days where the president or any other government official uses a threat to get a company to do something that has nothing to do with benefiting customers,” Jamison said.

“If a company does something, it is not a violation of antitrust if it does not harm consumers. So it may make a politician very unhappy, but that is not a violation of antitrust,” he explained. “Where a lot of people want to go with antitrust today is take it back 100 years, back in the day when antitrust could be used as a political weapon.”

Buck acknowledges the concerns of politically biased enforcement.

“I share my fellow conservatives’ concern for giving more power to the government. I understand that.”

“In this case, I’m just very concerned about Big Tech and how they abuse their monopolies.”