A bipartisan package of anti-Big Tech antitrust bills faces significant opposition from centrist Democrats, one of the largest caucuses in Congress, who find themselves on the same side as the tech companies in a major legislative fight.
Many of them say some of the bills are too broad and could harm innovation, resulting in unintended consequences to consumers. They oppose a coalition of mostly Democrats and some Republicans who support the ‘hipster antitrust’ movement, which aims to broaden the current definition of antitrust law.
Thanks to Republicans such as Robert Bork and Ronald Reagan, antitrust law has focused on consumer welfare measured by the price of goods and services for the past few decades.
Now, leaders of the ‘hipster’ movement, most prominently the Federal Trade Commission’s new chairwoman, Lina Khan, want to broaden the standard. They seek to “promote a host of political economic ends — including our interests as workers, producers, entrepreneurs, and citizens,” Khan stated in a famous paper she wrote while studying at Yale Law School.
The six sweeping anti-monopoly bills introduced by Khan’s former boss, Democratic House antitrust panel chairman David Cicilline of Rhode Island, aim to rein tech giants such as Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook by expanding the capabilities of antitrust law.
The bills passed by the House Judiciary Committee last week by narrow bipartisan margins after over 24 hours of debate are expected to be brought to the House floor later this year by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has endorsed the bills.
“I think the bills go way, way beyond what antitrust laws have ever been,” said Rep. Ro Khanna of California, one of the most vocal Democrats on antitrust policy and the founder of the House Antitrust Caucus.
“But I think they’re not fully thought out because I do think consumer welfare should matter. I don't think it should be the only thing that matters, but it should matter, and the bills are just so inconsistent with a hundred years of antitrust jurisprudence,” said Khanna, who is also the author of an upcoming book, titled Dignity in a Digital Age focused on improvements to tech policy.
Other Democrats say the bills improperly favor the demands of large companies and small businesses trying to compete with the Big Tech companies over the welfare of consumers.
“The bills focus on third-party competitors on tech platforms, who are emphasized over consumers,” a staffer for Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren told the Washington Examiner.
“You don’t have to look past the consumer welfare standard to solve the anti-competitive tech issues. You can understand consumer welfare in a broader context, look at it in a longer-term sense to fix these problems,” the staffer said.
Many centrist Democrats favor the existing antitrust laws, such as the Sherman Act and the Clayton Act, to solve monopolistic behavior by the tech giants.
“I’m in favor of continuing to enforce the existing antitrust laws and have stronger oversight of the tech companies, but mostly we should really let market compete for customers,” Democratic Rep. Lou Correa of California told the Washington Examiner.
“The best consumer welfare that you can have is people shopping online having a number of places and options to find the best service and product at the best price,” Correa said.
Khanna also favors instituting a new standard for anti-competitive behavior that he plans to persuade other Democrats to adopt in the coming weeks.
“What I want is to have a balancing test that takes into consideration consumer welfare but also other metrics for holding these tech companies accountable. We also need to vacate some key court cases from the past that are holding us back when it comes to antitrust enforcement,” Khanna said.
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