As bipartisan legislation reining in major tech companies moves closer to becoming law, Republicans are pushing the boundaries of their alliance with Democrats.
Republican Rep. Ken Buck and Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, the architects behind six antitrust bills targeting Big Tech that advanced out of the House Judiciary Committee in June, introduced a bill Tuesday requiring online platforms to provide a version of their services without personalized recommendation algorithms. The bill is a companion to legislation led by Republican Sen. John Thune and co-sponsored by several Democratic senators including Richard Blumenthal, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
On Friday, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar unveiled a companion bill to House legislation restricting major tech companies’ ability to merge with smaller firms. The bill is Klobuchar’s second recent antitrust effort following legislation co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley in late October aiming to prevent tech platforms from prioritizing their own services.
While both parties are united in their efforts to regulate tech platforms, each have very different assessments of Big Tech’s central problems, and Republicans hope the bipartisan bills strike a careful balance.
“The Democrats want to restrict speech more. And the Republicans want to allow more speech. And there’s really an issue on how to bridge that gap,” Rep. Ken Buck said in an interview with the Daily Caller News Foundation.
Democrats have introduced several bills intended to limit certain online speech such as misinformation, with Sen. Amy Klobuchar proposing legislation removing Section 230 liability protections from tech platforms that promote “health misinformation” as defined by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. House Democrats introduced a bill in October holding tech platforms liable for amplifying content causing physical or emotional injury.
Republicans have also targeted Section 230 albeit for much different reasons, with a bill proposed in 2019 by Sen. Josh Hawley removing liability protections from tech platforms that fail to maintain a standard of political neutrality when moderating content.
“I don’t think that you’re going to see a Section 230 bill pass with large bipartisan majorities in the near future, because there’s a difference of opinion,” Buck said.
While the antitrust bills have earned GOP support, some Republicans have raised concerns that the legislation would further empower antitrust enforcement agencies like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), currently led by Democrat Lina Khan.
“This is about power going to the FTC, the collusion of Big Tech and Big Government to, I think, further censor conservatives, further make limits on our free speech rights,” Rep. Jim Jordan, Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee, told ABC News after the bills were passed through committee.
Jordan, along with fellow Republicans Rep. Darrell Issa and Sen. Mike Lee, have criticized Khan’s tenure as FTC chairwoman, with Jordan describing her as “radical and partisan” and Lee calling her reforms a “progressive putsch.”
Cotton and Klobuchar’s bill and its House companion expand the FTC and the Department of Justice’s authority over certain mergers. The bill, which almost exclusively targets large tech companies, shifts the burden of presumption in merger reviews to acquiring firms, meaning that businesses merging with smaller companies must prove their mergers are not anti-competitive.
“It is still relatively unclear what companies will become covered entities,” Ashley Baker, director of public policy at the Committee For Justice, told the DCNF. “Ultimately, that is a matter for the DOJ and the FTC to decide, which doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence.”
“As the burden of proof shifts to the acquiring firms, this bill would further empower an already aggressive and radical FTC by essentially creating a presumption of mergers being illegal,” James Czerniawski, tech and innovation policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity, told the DCNF.
A senior aide for Sen. Cotton pointed to changes in the Senate version of the bill restricting the agency’s discretion over which firms were covered by the legislation. Cotton had pushed to implement these changes in response to concerns with empowering the FTC, the aide said.
Many critics of the bill were also quick to point out that the legislation would exempt smaller, but still large, e-commerce businesses such as those belonging to Target, based in Klobuchar’s home state of Minnesota, and Walmart, headquartered in Cotton’s home state of Arkansas.
Cotton’s aide dismissed charges of cronyism, pointing to the fact that only the largest tech companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google would be covered by the bill, and that these companies were uniquely monopolistic.
The House antitrust package is likely to hit the floor by the end of the year, according to Buck, who is hopeful that support from Senate Republicans will convince House lawmakers to get on board.
“I think their [House Republicans] concerns have been minimized,” Buck told the DCNF. “Sen. Hawley is co-sponsoring some bills. Sen. Cruz is co-sponsoring some bills. Hard to call these Democrat bills.”
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