Atop the House's Tech Antitrust Probe, a Democrat With an Independent Manner

Date : 06/10/2019 @ 3:51PM
Source : Dow Jones News
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Atop the House's Tech Antitrust Probe, a Democrat With an Independent Manner

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By Kristina Peterson 

WASHINGTON -- Technology companies are set to come into the crosshairs of a House panel led by Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat with an independent streak.

On Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee's antitrust panel will open an investigation into tech companies and antitrust laws with a look at the impact online platforms have had on journalism. The congressional probe comes as the Justice Department prepares to investigate Alphabet Inc.'s Google, while the Federal Trade Commission plans to focus on the dominance of Facebook Inc. In addition, Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. also could come under scrutiny by the agencies.

"We're going to look at the conduct of these large technology platforms and really try to determine whether the existing antitrust framework is sufficient to support competition in this space," Mr. Cicilline said in an interview. "The antitrust statutes were principally written more than 100 years ago for the railroads and oil barons -- we have a very different economy today."

Among the questions the subcommittee will examine are whether tech companies' market dominance has allowed them to exclude rivals, engage in anticompetitive behavior, or favor their own products and services, Mr. Cicilline said.

The panel will also consider whether the existing legal framework has allowed tech companies to acquire rivals to essentially create monopolies, he said. Big tech companies have disputed that notion, contending that they operate in dynamic, competitive markets while offering services that consumers want.

(The scheduled witnesses for Tuesday's hearing include David Pitofsky, general counsel and chief compliance officer of News Corp, the parent company of The Wall Street Journal. News Corp has been a critic of big tech firms' power in the online advertising industry.)

Mr. Cicilline expects to conduct the investigation, prepare a report and issue recommendations within this session of Congress, or the next 18 months.

"Most of the Democrats arrive with very strong antitrust bones in their bodies," said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D., Md.), a member of Mr. Cicilline's antitrust subcommittee. "People want to make sure that we don't end up with monopolies just through governmental passivity."

The hearing marks the start of a bipartisan probe being conducted by the committee at the center of a separate political fight: whether to begin impeachment proceedings against President Trump. On the same day as the antitrust hearing, the full House is scheduled to vote on a measure setting in motion a legal process to enforce subpoenas to Attorney General William Barr for the full report from special counsel Robert Mueller and its underlying evidence.

Mr. Cicilline in May became the highest-ranking Democrat to publicly call for starting an impeachment inquiry, a stance not shared by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and opposed by the Judiciary Committee's top Republican, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia.

But Messrs. Collins and Cicilline share more common ground when it comes to tech companies and the role they now play in the economy. Mr. Collins said he sees broad public interest in privacy concerns related to how tech companies collect and manage user data. He and Mr. Cicilline have also worked together on legislation to allow local news outlets to negotiate with large online platforms regarding how the news outlets' content is used.

"There are very legitimate questions on an industry that has grown up in the last 15 to 20 years," Mr. Collins said.

Still, the two lawmakers might diverge on some of the tactics deemed necessary to extract information from tech companies. Mr. Cicilline has said he might issue subpoenas, though he hopes that will be unnecessary. Mr. Collins has said he expects enough participation from the companies to avoid subpoenas.

"Any talk of subpoenas is way premature," Mr. Collins said.

Mr. Cicilline said his legislative approach has been shaped in part by his earlier legal career, in particular when he worked as a plaintiffs lawyer suing police departments for allegedly violating the civil rights of individuals.

"One of the things that has always informed my thinking is these power dynamics between big powerful people and ordinary Americans," said Mr. Cicilline, who also served two terms as the mayor of Providence, R.I.

Although he leads the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, which helps set messaging strategy ahead of the 2020 elections, Mr. Cicilline at times operates with a degree of independence unusual among high-ranking Democrats.

After the 2016 elections, Mrs. Pelosi recommended a slate of three candidates to lead the DPCC that didn't include Mr. Cicilline. But when Democrats voted, Mr. Cicilline won one of the three spots running the messaging group.

That might have left Mr. Cicilline less indebted to Mrs. Pelosi and more willing to express his own opinions, including his mid-May endorsement of starting an impeachment inquiry.

Although he hasn't backed down from that stance, Mr. Cicilline took a more measured tone in a leadership meeting last week, when he said Democrats should emphasize their legislative agenda and oversight efforts, stressing that the president isn't above the law.

"Everybody should heed your advice, including you," Mrs. Pelosi said, according to a person in the room.

Mr. Cicilline said Mrs. Pelosi has always encouraged other Democratic leaders to offer their own opinions and that his position has been shaped in part by watching the White House rebuff the Judiciary Committee's document and testimony requests.

"For members of the Judiciary Committee, because we live with it every day, it's not surprising [that] I came to this conclusion more quickly than some members of leadership not on Judiciary," he said.

He and Mrs. Pelosi appear closely in line, however, on the antitrust investigation. Mrs. Pelosi last week tweeted out her support for the antitrust panel's "long overdue investigation to determine if dominant digital platforms have harmed Americans in the marketplace & the voting booth," and that for giant tech companies, "the era of self-regulation is over."

Still, there is some skepticism even among critics of tech companies over how much the House investigation can accomplish, compared to the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission inquiries.

"I'm glad that they're asking questions about it," Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) said of the House probe. However, he said, "only the law-enforcement agencies can actually do anything with real teeth."

--Brent Kendall contributed to this article.

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 10, 2019 10:36 ET (14:36 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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