Mar 21, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Inside the Democrats' strategy to bombard Big Tech

Photo collage of Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline
Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photo: Graeme Jennings-Pool/Getty Images

The powerful Democrat overseeing antitrust legislation wants to hit Big Tech with the legislative equivalent of a swarm of drones rather than a single, hulking battleship that would be simpler to defeat.

Driving the news: In an interview with Axios on Sunday, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) said he didn't want to give the major technology companies and their armies of lobbyists the easy target of a massive antitrust bill.

  • Instead, in his role running the House Judiciary Committee's antitrust panel, he plans to craft a series of smaller bills — perhaps 10 or more — that will be ready in May.

Between the lines: The way Cicilline sees it, this small-target strategy achieves two goals:

  1. He has a better chance of finding common ground between Democrats and Republicans on more narrowly targeted issues.
  2. And he makes it harder for Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google to mobilize quickly against reforms they don't like.

Between the lines: "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 Axios.

  • "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."
  • Recognizing this reality, Cicilline said his intention is to use this range of bills to advance all the recommendations in his panel's 450-page investigation into competition in the digital marketplace.

Big picture: "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," Cicilline said.

  • "It also is an opportunity for members of the committee who have expressed a real interest or enthusiasm about a particular issue, to sort of take that on and champion it."

Behind the scenes: Outside of his antitrust work, Cicilline also is readying a proposal taking aim at online companies' key protection against liability from users' posts, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

  • Cicilline said his proposal, which is in the early stages, would focus on the decisions companies like Facebook make to amplify content that's posted by users.
  • "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 said. "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."

The bottom line: Cicilline says he is optimistic the Biden administration will be a partner in the work on antitrust, and that tech companies are wrong if they think the pandemic has brought them a reprieve from government action.

  • "Frankly, the pandemic in many ways made the market dominance of these technologies companies even greater and has demonstrated the monopoly power they have," Cicilline said.
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