From Biden to Congress, Big Tech is under mounting pressure
Washington,Without speaking a word or scratching a pen across paper, President Joe Biden drove up the pressure on Big Tech companies already smarting under federal and congressional investigations, epic antitrust lawsuits and near-constant condemnation from politicians of both parties.
Biden last week elevated a fierce critic of Big Tech, antitrust legal scholar Lina Khan, to head the powerful Federal Trade Commission. The surprise move was a clear signal of a tough stance toward tech giants Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple, and came as sweeping bipartisan legislation advanced in the House that could curb their market power and force them to sever their dominant platforms from their other lines of business.
The House Judiciary Committee is digging into the legislation in a public drafting session Wednesday, an initial step in what promises to be a strenuous slog through Congress. Many Republican lawmakers denounce the market dominance of Big Tech but don’t support a wholesale revamp of the antitrust laws. Republicans have relentlessly hurled accusations of anti-conservative bias against the social media platforms and may demand targeted legislative sanctions in return for their support.
The huge legislative package, led by industry critic Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., targets the companies’ structure and could point toward breaking them up, a dramatic step for Congress to take against a powerful industry whose products are woven into everyday life. If such steps were mandated, they could bring the biggest changes to the industry since the federal government’s landmark case against Microsoft some 20 years ago.
It will be a really heavy lift, says Rebecca Allensworth, a professor of antitrust at Vanderbilt University Law School. The complex language that could eventually be laid down may invite fights in the courts by rewriting four decades of antitrust case law, she suggested.
Lauded as engines of innovation, the Silicon Valley giants for decades enjoyed minimal regulation and star status in Washington, with a notable coziness during the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president. The industry’s fortunes abruptly reversed about two years ago, when the companies came under intense federal scrutiny, a searing congressional investigation, and growing public criticism over issues of competition, consumer privacy and hate speech.
Biden said as a presidential candidate that dismantling the big tech companies should be considered. He also has said he wants to see changes to the social media companies’ long-held legal protections for speech on their platforms. The legislative proposals also would prohibit the tech giants from favoring their own products and services over competitors on their platforms. The legislation was informed by a 15-month Judiciary subcommittee antitrust investigation, led by Cicilline, that concluded the four tech giants have abused their market power by charging excessive fees, imposing tough contract terms and extracting valuable data from individuals and businesses that rely on them.