On Thursday, House Judiciary Committee lawmakers held a hearing with some of the most prominent players in antitrust enforcement today. Two Federal Trade Commission leaders and two state attorneys general currently suing Facebook for violating antitrust law testified before the committee.
But while lawmakers have spoken extensively about breaking up companies like Facebook and Google, law enforcement agencies are the ones with real power to unwind tech mergers, even if their dwindling budgets and measly resources make it more difficult to do so. On Thursday, members of Congress signaled that they want to help them bring more lawsuits against Big Tech.
WHAT IT MEANS
In previous hearings, committee chairman Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) and others have made sweeping statements about setting new rules of the road for tech companies in order to spur more competition in the market. But on Thursday, it became apparent that helping enforcers do their jobs may be Congress’ first point of focus when it comes to reform.
At the top of Thursday’s hearing, Cicilline asked the witnesses how Congress could help modernize merger enforcement and encourage agencies like the DOJ and FTC to take on more cases.
“Today’s hearing is an opportunity to take additional steps… by identifying reforms to develop and clarify the antitrust laws to confront America’s monopoly problem,” Cicilline said in his opening remarks Thursday.
It’s something Republicans seem eager to take on as well. Ranking Member Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) said Thursday that he supports “increasing rigorous enforcement” of antitrust law and “reforming burdens of proof for Big Tech mergers involving a monopoly platform” — basically, making it easier for law enforcement to bring lawsuits against violating tech companies.
But FTC Acting Chair Democrat Rebecca Slaughter told lawmakers that their work shouldn’t stop there. “I firmly believe that effective enforcement is a complement, not an alternative, to thoughtful regulation,” she said.
During Thursday’s hearing, I spoke with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) about Congress’ priorities when it comes to antitrust reform. I asked Klobuchar if Congress should prioritize helping enforcers and providing them with more resources when it comes to antitrust reform.
“That’s something you can do while making the case for the changes to law,” Klobuchar said. “I was so close to getting that done at the end of the year.”
Klobuchar touted her antitrust package with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) called the “Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act.” That bill would provide law enforcement with more resources to take competition cases to court, mirroring much of what the House Judiciary Committee discussed on Thursday.
Klobuchar is also giving a virtual talk on antitrust reform on Friday with EU Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager. I asked Klobuchar what lessons the US could take from the EU’s competition efforts in the tech space.
“They have gone about this in a way where they’re seriously looking at competition policy,” Klobuchar said. “They’re calling it competition policy, and they’ve been aggressive about it, going up to these gateway companies. I think that’s the overall thing that one can learn. Let’s face it, US policy has been sleepy. For years, it was kind of close your eyes to what’s happening with things like [Facebook’s] purchases of WhatsApp and Instagram.”
With all of the House’s hearings coming to an end, it means we could start seeing legislation introduced in the near future. Earlier this month, Klobuchar told CNN’s Brian Fung that she plans to hold a series of competition hearings in the Senate as well looking into tech’s dominance, like app store fees and Facebook and Google’s dominance of the ad market. Those hearings haven’t been scheduled yet.