Democrats Plan to Come for Big Tech With Swarm of Small Antitrust Bills

Rep. David Cicilline.
Photo: Ting-Shen/Pool (Getty Images)

The top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee panel on antitrust says that legislators are preparing a slate of many smaller pieces of legislation rather than one huge bill in a strategy to defeat the tech industry’s formidable lobbying machine.

Both Democrats and Republicans have become wary of the sheer size of firms like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft in recent years. Democrats have focused more on what they see as anti-competitive tactics, abusive labor practices, and promotion of misinformation and violent extremism, while Republicans have mostly sought to prove said companies are run by members of a semi-secret socialist cabal. Either way, tech firms have found themselves in more hostile territory in DC, with a more limited array of allies. Some type of major legislation or regulatory response designed to limit the companies’ power now seems politically realistic (even if the U.S. government remains unwilling or unable to take dramatic actions like breaking tech firms up).

Representative David Cicilline, the chair of the judiciary committee, told Axios this weekend that he sees prepping numerous proposals on antitrust as a sort of drone swarm tactic that would overwhelm Big Tech’s political firewall by sheer numbers.

Cicilline told Axios that he believes the result of the committee’s work could be 10 or more small bills that he believes would increase the likelihood that individual components could pass—as individual propositions may have broader support from members of both parties—and that would be harder for lobbyists to unite against. There’s also the possibility that tech firms could target each other in the crossfire over individual bills. For example, while both Apple and Facebook might put up a united defense on some antitrust issues, they have a bitter, ongoing feud over more specific arguments like user privacy and the way Apple runs the iOS App Store.

“If you look at the way these technology companies have staffed up with their lobbying and the money they’re investing in Washington, it’s designed… to prevent any changes to the current ecosystem that benefits them enormously,” Cicilline told the site. “They have literally billions and billions and billions of reasons to try to protect the current system because it produces… profits not seen on planet Earth.”

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“My strategy is you’ll see a number of bills introduced, both because it’s harder for (the tech companies) to manage and oppose, you know, 10 bills as opposed to one,” the representative added.

Reuters separately confirmed that Democrats on the committee are preparing at least 10 separate pieces of legislation.

The obvious potential downside to the strategy is that tech firms could isolate and gang up on individual proposals they see as the most threatening while Congress manages to pass only window dressing. Many of the big tech firms, such as Facebook, have tried to pre-empt critics by calling for more regulation of the industry, but only to an extent that would make it look like the government was doing something while leaving the companies’ ambitions intact.

Cicilline is working on a separate bill to modify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the provision which safeguards websites against most forms of liability for content uploaded by their users and which is a building block of the modern web. Section 230 has become a political football as Democrats have argued it allows companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to broadcast hate speech and misinformation without repercussions, while Republicans are obsessed with the idea it enables those same companies to censor conservative ideas. In reality, Section 230 mostly acts as a way for big platforms to operate at scale without being held responsible for every libelous post, or being continually harassed by nuisance lawsuits over supposed censorship.

Experts on internet law have generally dismissed bills from both sides of the aisle aiming to reform or change Section 230 as misguided and potentially having major unforeseen consequences to internet architecture, such as encouraging tech companies to impose sweeping new restrictions on users for fear of lawsuits.

Cicilline’s Section 230 proposal will focus on the algorithmic decisions that the likes of Facebook and YouTube use to amplify content—such as when to suggest a user watch or share a viral video, when to propose they join a group of other like-minded users, or what kind of stuff appears on users’ news feeds or plays next when a video is completed. The representative’s argument appears to be that these decisions are made by the companies themselves and aren’t like the user-generated posts they’re serving up.

“That’s a very complicated algorithm that is designed to maximize engagement to drive up advertising prices to produce greater profits for the company,” Cicilline told Axios. “That whole set of decisions, one could argue, is different than the initial post. That’s a set of business decisions for which, it might be quite easy to argue, that a company should be liable for.”


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Tom McKay