While lawmakers pressed the chief executives of some of the world’s biggest tech companies for hours over antitrust issues on July 29, experts say the biggest takeaway was perhaps the bipartisan nature of the criticism.
For the past year, the House’s top antitrust subcommittee has been probing Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google to decide if a change is needed in America’s century-old antitrust laws, or even if the companies should be broken up because of their market power. Some said the hearing failed to bring to light any real answers to the issues.
“The most notable aspect of the hearing was that hostility to the big tech platforms is bipartisan,” Doug Melamed, a Stanford University law professor with expertise in antitrust law and intellectual property, told The Epoch Times via email.
“Antitrust law has become too narrow and too favorable to defendants,” Melamed said, adding that he was surprised there wasn’t much discussion of alleged wrongdoing by Google in connection with advertising sales.
Whether court decisions or new legislation are needed poses a complicated question, according to Melamed. One risk of enacting new laws is that it might be “dominated by a broad populist sentiment and thus go too far toward an unwise restriction of big companies and efficient business practices,” he said.
Chad Elder, a partner with expertise on antitrust at Bradley, a national law firm, said that while it’s unclear if Congress will take any meaningful action, there does appear to be “considerable sentiment among both liberals and conservatives that something should be done.”
“Representatives on both sides of the aisle remarked that this was an issue that had unusually high bipartisan support,” Elder told The Epoch Times.
“I think it is unlikely that companies like Amazon or Facebook would be ‘broken up’ entirely, in part because, despite their faults, they are so popular among their users,” he added. “But it is possible that certain aspects of their business could be spun off or regulated.”
There are several actions that Congress could take. One option is new legislation to supplement or amend existing federal antitrust laws, or heightened pressure to enforce existing law to punish perceived violations, according to Elder. He said he wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation regarding political censorship on social media platforms such as Facebook, though he noted that it was “wholly apart from antitrust considerations.”
The CEOs testified remotely via video to lawmakers. They provided data purporting to show how much competition they face and how valuable their innovation and essential services are to consumers.
But they sometimes struggled to answer pointed questions about their business practices as well as a range of other concerns about alleged political bias, their effect on U.S. democracy, and their relationship with China.
The panel’s chairman, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), said each platform controlled by the four companies “is a bottleneck for a key channel of distribution.”
“Whether they control access to information or to a marketplace, these platforms have the incentive and ability to exploit this power,” he said. “They can charge exorbitant fees, impose oppressive contracts, and extract valuable data from the people and businesses that rely on them.”
Tim Derdenger, associate professor of marketing and strategy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, told The Epoch Times that the hearing was unified in casting the four firms in a very negative light, highlighting “the bipartisan recognition that these four firms wield excessive market power.”
“If I had to predict based upon this hearing, these firms will be regulated, and for Google, maybe even forced to divest or spin out its large entities such as Double Click and YouTube in order to mitigate the market power Google has with search,” Derdenger said.
Ashley Baker, director of public policy at the Committee for Justice, meanwhile argued that antitrust “shouldn’t be weaponized to correct problems that have nothing to do with competition law.”
“Very little of the hearing was focused on antitrust, but was rather a mishmash of unrelated concerns about technology and tech companies,” Baker told The Epoch Times. “That’s not to say that all of these concerns are invalid, but they are not antitrust problems.”
In a letter for the record on the hearing, Baker and other conservative and free-market leaders argued that “weaponizing antitrust for broader socioeconomic purposes would fundamentally alter the primary goal of antitrust, undermine the rule of law, and negatively impact consumers.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report