The House Judiciary Committee is launching an antitrust investigation into major tech companies like Google and Amazon, moving Congress closer to legislative action against the tech giants.
“This is really about ‘how do we get competition back in this space?’” Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will lead the investigation as head of the antitrust subcommittee, told reporters on Monday.
The antitrust investigation represents a new headache for the tech giants, which have faced increased congressional pressure over the past two years. The investigation will include depositions, public hearings, and document requests, according to Cicilline. The investigation will also likely feature hearing with the CEOs of the major tech companies, while offering private interviews for witnesses worried that the tech giants would go after them.
“There can be economic retaliation and real costs for people that will come forward,” Cicicilline said.
The committee will likely produce a report and recommendations, according to Cicilline, who hopes to get some kind of legislative action finished before the congressional session ends in January 2021.
“People seem to have forgotten that there’s a reason that we have the antitrust statute,” Cicilline said.
While Cicilline claimed the investigation isn’t about specific companies, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook have already been notified by the committee. Cicilline highlighted Google’s control of 90 percent of search engine use and Amazon’s control of half of online commerce as potential topics for investigation. Cicilline also cited Twitter’s 2017 decision to shut down short-form video app Vine as a move that could have hurt consumer choice.
Cicilline also repeatedly slammed Facebook, describing the company as “engaged in pretty bad conduct” and labelling it a “repeat offender” for its data privacy issues and the proliferation of political misinformation on the platform.
“These large technology platforms — particularly Facebook — cannot be trusted to regulate itself,” Cicilline said.
The tech companies did not respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have given political donations to the members of the committee now tasked with investigating them. Fifteen of the committee's Democrats received a combined $152,000 last cycle from the political action committees of Google, Facebook, and Amazon (unlike those three, Apple does not have a corporate PAC). Those same companies donated $74,000 to ten Judiciary Republicans last cycle.
Cicilline said Congress and regulators had initially been reluctant to interfere with tech giants out of fear of stifling technological innovations — an approach he wants to change.
“I think what we’ve learned is that actually there are some pretty serious dangers that are presented with the bigness of these online platforms,” Cicilline said.
According to Cicilline, the Judiciary investigation will also cover Google and Facebook’s massive shares of digital ad spending,which has drastically reduced ad sales for media companies.
“This is about whether or not our democracy will survive, fundamentally,” Cicilline said.
The Judiciary announcement comes as the Justice Department reportedly prepares an antitrust investigation into Google and the Federal Trade Commission receives jurisdiction over Facebook for its own potential antitrust case. But Cicilline said he didn’t trust the Justice Department or the Federal Trade Commission to adequately handle antitrust issues during the Trump administration.
“I don’t have a lot of confidence, frankly, that these agencies will get the job done,” Cicilline said.
While House Republicans have held hearings on allegations that tech giants have been biased against Republicans, Cicilline said his investigation wouldn’t cover those claims. Cicilline complained that one hearing starring pro-Trump commentators “Diamond & Silk,” which occurred when Republicans ran the judiciary committee, “made you feel like you were in a Saturday Night Live skit.”
“I don’t think there’s any evidence to support the claim that there’s anti-conservative bias at all,” Cicilline said.
With reporting by Lachlan Markay