SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Sen. Mike Lee minced few words in an announcement this week that he’s ready to lead the charge against U.S. Big Tech companies and what he sees as a widespread effort among those interests to suppress conservative voices and ideas and wield market power to suppress competition.
“We have much to address,” Lee said in a release. “The actions of Big Tech continue to divide the nation, undermine fundamental liberties and distort the market.
“The Silicon Valley fairy tale of innovation and technological progress sold to Americans has turned into a corporatist nightmare of censorship and hypocrisy.”
Lee noted his long-running concerns as a member of the Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee and offered praise to subcommittee chairwoman and former Democratic presidential candidate from Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar for her stated willingness to work across the aisle. Lee also promised to work toward curbing the behaviors of those tech company operators who he said “are no longer content simply to profit off of us — they want also to control what information we are allowed to access.”
“As the leading Republican on the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee for the last decade, I have repeatedly warned of the dangers posed by Big Tech,” Lee said. “But despite those warnings, our antitrust enforcers were asleep at the wheel while Silicon Valley transformed from a center of innovation into a center of acquisition.
“Instead of competing to be the next Google, Apple, Facebook or Amazon, today’s tech startups are pushed by their private-equity backers to sell out to Google, Apple, Facebook or Amazon.”
Lee said he will also be reviving a legislative effort, the One Agency Act, to pare the two federal agencies that currently oversee antitrust issues down to a single entity. Having the U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission sharing responsibilities, and sometimes butting heads, Lee said, is an inefficient and ineffective approach to addressing illegal monopolies and particularly so for the tech industry.
The senator said while the greatest danger to liberty has long been “state coercion,” he now believes another and equally perilous threat is on the rise — the “soft totalitarianism of a corporate shadow state.”
“It is not the government’s monopoly on force that today’s left uses to punish wrong think, but the economic monopolies of multinational corporations,” Lee said. “While the means are different, the effect may in some cases be the same.”
Last October, Lee had an opportunity at a Senate committee hearing to directly question the top executives of Google, Facebook and Twitter over the companies’ handling of political content, accusing them of censoring conservative viewpoints.
Lee quoted statements from each of the business leaders about how their companies operate without partisan bias.
“Now these quotes make me think that there is a good case to be made that you’re engaging in unfair or deceptive trade practices in violation of federal law,” Lee said. “You seem to do the opposite and take censorship-related actions against the president, against members of his administration,” against conservative media outlets and “pro-life groups.”
All three chief executives — including Jack Dorsey of Twitter, Sundar Pichai of Alphabet Inc. (the parent company of Google) and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook — testified that they receive complaints of bias from both conservatives and liberals, but there is not an intentional partisan moderation of content on their platforms.
University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law professor and antitrust specialist Jorge Contreras said Lee’s concerns about free speech and alleged suppression of conservative political viewpoints fall outside the bounds of antitrust regulation and he believes more robust consumer protections could be achieved without, necessarily, adding new laws to the books or reconfiguring agency responsibilities.
“I think it’s an enforcement issue,” Contreras said. “There is a lot of room for those overseeing these tech industry companies to think more creatively and expansively about the markets they operate in.”
“This is particularly the case in how mergers are reviewed,” Contreras said. “When there’s a merger approval hearing, it’s really just the private parties there at the table. No public aspect, just the business representatives and the Department of Justice, and they’re the ones who are tasked with looking out for the public interest.
“By adding a public hearing element to the process … you might get better input and better outcomes.”
Contreras also sees the long-standing Sherman Antitrust Act as a solid basis of law for identifying and addressing illegal anticompetitive practices.
“The way the courts have interpreted the Sherman Act is a little too narrow,” Contreras said. “I don’t think new laws are necessary, I think we’ve got the laws and it’s just a question of will power.”
While Lee and fellow federal legislators continue to grapple with rule-making as it relates to antitrust conduct, the Utah Attorney General’s Office is currently involved in three lawsuits targeting various alleged instances of anticompetitive conduct by Google and Facebook.
All three suits were filed last year and are still in the early stages of the process.
- In New York vs. Facebook, the arguments will focus on whether the world’s largest social media company illegally suppressed or eliminated competition via simply acquiring startups that could pose future challenges to Facebook’s dominance.
- Texas vs. Google will explore whether the search giant is unfairly controlling both the buy-side and sell-side of the online display advertising ecosystem.
- In Colorado v. Google, the legal question is whether Google unfairly directs searchers to interests it owns or earns profits from rather than independent third-party service providers as well as the legality of contracts the company has with wireless service providers that allegedly keep Google’s search engine competitors off of prominent placement on cellphones and internet browsers.