Sep 21, 2021 - Technology

Senate eyes tech firms' data troves

Illustration of the Capitol Dome surrounded by algorithmic pathways that read things like "input" and "error"

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Lawmakers mulling how to tighten antitrust laws' reins over online platforms will grill Google and Facebook Tuesday about a key asset in the digital age: data.

Why it matters: The intersection of data collection and competition policy is a particularly vulnerable point for the tech giants, whose power comes from amassing troves of information about users.

Driving the news: The Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee's Tuesday hearing will focus on whether data collection by tech companies and data brokers hurts competition.

  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who leads the subcommittee, already introduced broad antitrust reform legislation earlier this year and told Axios she's also working on targeted, tech-specific measures, such as a bill outlawing discriminatory conduct.
  • Concerns about data collection have focused more on privacy, but Klobuchar said it's also important to look at data in the competitive realm.
  • "Think of the barrier to entry when these dominant platforms are able to basically target ads in a way that no one else does because they have all the data," Klobuchar told Axios.
  • "The second piece of it is it allows them to create certain algorithms because they have data that no one else has. And so it's a major barrier to entry against the platforms, and I think a very interesting competitive theory."

What they're saying: Charlotte Slaiman, competition policy director for Public Knowledge, will tell lawmakers the vast amount of data tech companies have acquired helps them freeze out new competitors.

  • "This should be a dynamic industry where innovation can flourish, but because of the hands-off approach policymakers have taken in the past, new disruptive innovators have not had a fair shot," Slaiman wrote in her testimony.

The other side: Google and Facebook, both facing antitrust lawsuits already from federal authorities, will testify at the hearing.

  • Expect Google to tout its data privacy protections and user control options and argue that data alone does not guarantee a successful product.
  • "Rather, it is the investment, innovation and method that matters, not just the amount of data a company may have," Markham Erickson, Google vice president of government affairs and public policy, writes in his opening statement.
  • Facebook did not respond to a request seeking comment.
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