From legislative proposals like the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) and Open App Markets Act (OAMA) to demands that federal regulators take a more aggressive approach to antitrust enforcement, lawmakers have become bolder in their demands that the federal government hold corporations, specifically Big Tech, accountable for alleged anticompetitive behavior. In some cases, lawmakers have not only called for reining in Big Tech, but for breaking it up entirely.
Most of the more extreme proposals have failed to be become law. Some lower-profile bills like the Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act (MFFMA), which will increase antitrust enforcement agency resources, have been more successful. While not all antitrust legislation is inherently a misstep, the authors of recent policy proposals have made it clear that they won’t be satisfied until they achieve more robust government involvement in the economy.
The danger of the government overreaching and producing unintended consequences remains and is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that lawmakers are likely to reintroduce many of the more extreme legislative proposals that failed in 2022 again this year. They’re likely to introduce new bills as well, such as those targeting major social media companies.
At the heart of these troubling developments is increasing bipartisan support for the crusade against Big Tech. Some lawmakers who would ordinarily consider themselves to be small-government conservatives have joined hands with big-government liberals to demand reform, although for very different reasons.
Democrats like Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar have long advocated for reining in Big Tech because they believe that these “companies have too much power… over our economy, our society, and our democracy.” These lawmakers have more or less adopted the ideology of the late Justice Louis Brandeis, who disliked big businesses and believed that they, by their very nature, manipulate the market to gain an advantage over their rivals. Under this view, it’s the government’s responsibility to practice proactive enforcement and ensure this doesn’t happen. While this line of thinking presents several problems, and most policy proposals aligned with it would almost certainly harm consumers, it’s nonetheless pervasive among liberal lawmakers.
Some Republicans, like Sens. Chuck Grassley, Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz have also announced varying levels of support for antitrust reform and reining in Big Tech. Their primary concern seems to be that Big Tech is biased against conservatives. They believe that conservative censorship is “pervasive” at many large tech companies, and that these companies regularly put their thumbs on the political scale by moderating content on their media platforms and censoring contrarian voices. These abuses are no longer tolerable to senators like Hawley, who has written letters to major tech CEOs demanding answers, and Grassley, who has advocated for reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which provides immunity to platforms for the publication of third-party content.
Sens. Hawley and Cruz, in particular, appear to believe that the only way to ensure meaningful reform is to take a wrecking ball to everything Big Tech. Last year, Cruz went so far as to sign on to Klobuchar’s AICOA bill, which he himself acknowledged would do nothing to address Big Tech censorship. Before casting his vote to move the bill out of committee, Cruz noted, “I will say from my perspective the abuses of Big Tech are so egregious that I am more than happy to unleash the trial lawyers.”
This reasoning is deeply flawed. Regardless of the critiques that conservatives like Cruz have of Big Tech, signing onto legislation that has nothing to do with those concerns is unproductive. It may also guarantee the passage of bad bills that will only serve to punish those who least deserve it: consumers.
Antitrust legislation should be grounded on “unbiased research to avoid unnecessarily burdening an industry that contributes massively to national GDP and provides immense consumer benefits.” Legislative proposals that would fundamentally alter how Big Tech platforms sell goods and services would do untold harm to consumers who have consistently voiced support for their offerings.
Lawmakers, and particularly Republicans who value limited government and a conservative approach, should carefully consider the facts before jumping on the bandwagon to break up Big Tech. Trusting the government with this kind of power isn’t just unwise –– it’s also potentially damaging to the very constituents they claim to serve.