Partisan Divisions Hinder House Big Tech Report

WASHINGTON—Partisan divisions are emerging in the final stage of a congressional inquiry into U.S. technology giants, showing the uphill road ahead for legislation to rein in Big Tech despite widespread concern about the companies’ power.

The disagreements between Democrats and Republicans on the House Antitrust Subcommittee are focused on policy recommendations growing out of the panel’s 16-month-long probe into the market power of

Apple Inc.,

Amazon.com Inc.,

Alphabet Inc.’s

Google, and

Facebook Inc.,

according to congressional aides.

The House panel is preparing a report detailing its conclusions. It had been expected to publish Monday, but hasn’t yet been released.

Republicans are privately balking at some ideas in the draft report, which was penned primarily by Democratic staff. GOP lawmakers don’t support a Democratic proposal to separate large online platforms from other lines of business, the aides said. Some Republicans are also disappointed the report doesn’t discuss the companies’ power to moderate online speech, a hot-button issue for conservatives, the aides said.

Other recommendations have bipartisan—if not unanimous—support, including boosting resources for U.S. antitrust enforcers and making legal changes that could make it harder for a large tech company to buy another firm, the aides said. One proposal aims to put a heavier burden on companies to prove a merger doesn’t hurt competition. Another would require tech companies to report more mergers to U.S. antitrust authorities to review.

Lawmakers generally agree the issues posed by tech companies warrant congressional action. The disagreements are appearing as they begin to hammer out the details.

“It’s very important that we proceed with a scalpel and not a chain saw,” said Rep. Ken Buck (R., Col.), a member of the House panel, last week. Mr. Buck has spent recent days seeking support from other Republicans to publish their own recommendations for reining in Big Tech. A draft of that document, first reported by Politico, outlines areas of agreement with Democrats but warns against unduly expanding the government’s power.

The CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google faced tough questions and, at times, hostile criticism about their business practices during a House antitrust hearing. The session highlighted how four of America’s five most valuable companies are under scrutiny from both sides of the aisle. Photo: U.S. House Judiciary Committee/Reuters (Originally Published July 30, 2020)

Democratic members of the House panel declined interviews in the days ahead of the report’s release.

The House probe has been bipartisan from its inception in June 2019. That doesn’t always happen in the lower chamber which, unlike the Senate, operates under rules that give members of the minority party little power.

Republican and Democratic staff coordinated on how to structure the inquiry, and when the committee demanded documents from Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook, the letters were signed by members from both sides of the aisle.

Some of that bipartisanship began to fray earlier this year when Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), one of the House’s most conservative members, took over the top Republican job on the House Judiciary Committee, of which the antitrust subcommittee is a part. When the antitrust panel sent a bipartisan letter in May demanding testimony from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Mr. Jordan didn’t sign it, instead issuing a statement questioning whether Democrats had already decided they wanted to break up the company.

In July, the companies’ CEOs testified at a videoconference hearing and received almost universally adversarial questions from both sides of the aisle. Some Republicans pressed the CEOs about allegedly unfair treatment of online speech by conservatives, an issue that Democrats dismissed as lacking in evidence.

After one round of Mr. Jordan’s questions, Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D. Pa.) said to the witnesses: “I’d like to redirect your attention to antitrust law rather than fringe conspiracy theories.” That prompted a shouting match as Mr. Jordan denied the charge.

Write to Ryan Tracy at [email protected]

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