Amy Klobuchar on the Democrats’ Plan to Take On Big Tech
Funding for antitrust agencies, an ambitious legislative agenda, support from President Biden: Sen. Klobuchar tells Big Technology where the Democrats will focus.
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“I’d say resolved,” Senator Amy Klobuchar told me over Zoom yesterday. We were talking about whether congressional Democrats were serious about pursuing meaningful action against the tech giants. And Klobuchar, the new chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, seemed committed.
“There's been some good hearings,” she said. “But to me, actually, I have to get something done.”
Klobuchar is already moving ahead. She introduced an ambitious new bill to bolster antitrust law last month. And today — less than 24 hours after Congress passed its $1.9 trillion Covid relief package — she’s hosting the first of many hearings meant to further interrogate Big Tech’s power and rally support for legislation.
The U.S. government has not yet effectively checked the tech giants, so some skepticism is warranted, but this effort seems worthy of attention. The Democrats have everything lined up: the legislature, a supportive president, knowledgeable experts, and public opinion. If something’s ever going to happen to Big Tech, this would be the moment. And by listening to Klobuchar, you can hear what’s to come.
Funding the regulators
Last month, Klobuchar proposed massive funding increases for the Federal Trade Commission Department of Justice’s antitrust divisions. These agencies are grievously underfunded, and can’t properly check the tech giants (as Big Technology readers know well). Klobuchar’s bill would allocate an additional $300 million per year to both, essentially doubling their budgets.
Remarkably, Klobuchar said the Senate nearly passed major funding increases to the FTC and DOJ at the end of 2020. She said she’d won the support of White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, and it was ready to go. “I had the whole Senate lined up for it,” she said. “We had taken care of any objections, and it was going to be part of the end of the year deal.” But Rep. Jim Jordan and other House Republicans opposed it, she said, and it fell apart at the last second.
“We can get this done,” Klobuchar continued. “I feel really good about our possibilities of doing this because we were so close at the end of the year.” The momentum to fund the regulators seems real. It would put the agencies on better footing to deal with trillion-dollar companies that have remained largely unaccountable to date. This alone would be a dramatic change.
Support from the President
President Joe Biden seemed like he might be hands-off on antitrust, especially after serving in an Obama administration that allowed Big Tech to run wild. But he’s shown otherwise since taking office. Biden’s brought Columbia law professor Tim Wu, a vocal big tech critic, into the White House. And he’s expected to nominate another critic, Lina Kahn, to the FTC. The tech giants hate Kahn’s work so much they’ve paid former antitrust regulators to attack it.
Klobuchar hosted Biden’s inauguration, so speaking with her was a good chance to get a window into his thinking on big tech antitrust. “I have talked to him about this,” she said. “He gets it. The people around him get it. I'm not surprised that he put in aggressive, fresh thinkers when it comes to this.” Biden isn’t planning to get rid of the tech sector, she said, but "what he wants to do is to make it more competitive.”
During the Obama era, Big Tech went on an unchecked acquisition spree. Facebook alone bought Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014. And Wu, who served in the Obama administration, expressed regret. He recently said “maybe sometimes we had an overly rosy view” of Big Tech. Perhaps that was because Facebook played a fundamental role in helping Obama get elected. But the warm feelings have thawed.
Asked what the Democrats have learned from the Obama years, Klobuchar indicated they wouldn’t be quite as soft. “When they go out and they buy what we call nascent competitors,” she said. “It's not just all for altruistic reason.”
Klobuchar’s new bill has a wonky name, ‘‘Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act of 2021,” but it packs a punch. The bill includes stricter standards for acquisitions, increased funding for regulators, and strengthens enforcement. It’s the type of bill that Klobuchar will have to win both Republican and Democrat support to push through. And that’s where the supposed bipartisan support for big tech antitrust can smash into reality.
Both parties talk a big game on checking the tech giants. But individual legislators can be reticent to do anything beyond interrogating their CEOs in hearings. Klobuchar knows this from her experience with the Honest Ads Act, which is still floating somewhere around the Senate.
Still, Klobuchar seemed ready to rally support, amend her bill, or develop new ones as she and her colleagues see fit. “The hearings,” she said, “set the stage for the bills. And I say bills because there's a number of bills. So it could be split up. It could go together. There'll be bills coming out of the House.”
With today’s hearing, the process gets underway in earnest.
Amazon’s Antitrust Antagonist Has a Breakthrough Idea (New York Times)
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