The House Judiciary Committee Antitrust Subcommittee heard from two major players in the government's review of Big Tech and whether the antitrust laws have kept up with their exponential growth, but not before the legislators had staked out their own positions.
The toughest rhetoric came from Democrats decrying consolidation and what they said was lax enforcement.
Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline (D-R.I.) pulled no punches, he said the extreme concentration of online platforms may have some benefits, but they were clearly using their power to set market terms that enrich themselves and make it impossible to compete.
He said the power they wield is in some measures unprecedented, while government regulators have been paralyzed.
Full committee chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) echoed that criticism. He said they were at a critical moment when a handful of dominant companies control "commerce, content, and communications." He got specific, pointing out that Google had over 90% of search, Facebook over 80% of social media revenues, and Amazon over half of online commerce.
He said that anticompetitive consolidation has had devastating effects on a free and diverse press as well as the survival of startups. Both talked of lax merger enforcement in the U.S. vs. more muscular oversight overseas.
Ranking member Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) was concerned but less harsh in his assessment, a view echoed by other Republicans. He said that it was important not to overreach or punish success or suppress innovation or limit consumer power.
Witnesses for the hearing were Department of Justice antitrust chief Makan Delrahim and Federal Trade Commission Chairman Joseph Simons in the latest hearing Wednesday (Nov. 13) in a series of hearings, Online Platforms and Market Power, Part 4: Perspectives of the Antitrust Agencies.
Delrahim and Simons both talked about their ongoing, separate, investigations into Big Tech and antitrust, but both talked about the actions they had already taken in the digital space, and would take future action if their investigation warrants.
On the issue of enforcement, Simons conceded that the FTC was resource-restrained so it focused on cases it had a better likelihood of winning, adding that if it had more money, it could pursue more cases.
Simons was asked about Europe's opt-in consent regime and whether the U.S. should take a similar approach to federal privacy legislation. He said he was concerned that could backfire, entrenching the largest players even more at the expense of newer entrants because with consumers faced with a barrage of opt-in decisions on data use, the larger, more familiar, players are the ones most likely to get that consent in part because users may not want to spread their information so widely.
Sensenbrenner agreed that the U.S. needed to beware the unintended consequences of efforts at protecting privacy or passing federal legislation.