GOP senators split over antitrust remedies for big tech

GOP senators split over antitrust remedies for big tech
© Greg Nash

GOP senators on Tuesday signaled they are divided over whether to pursue antitrust enforcement against the country's largest tech companies. 

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about data privacy and competition policy on Tuesday, some Republican lawmakers slammed the enormous market power of companies like Facebook and Google, while others questioned whether "breaking them up" would be useful.  

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Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOvernight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran Shanahan drama shocks Capitol Hill, leaving Pentagon rudderless Shanahan drama shocks Capitol Hill, leaving Pentagon rudderless MORE (R-S.C.), the chairman of the committee, expressed concern that Google and Facebook "own 70 percent of digital advertising in the world," asking witnesses for potential "antitrust remedies" to apply to advertising practices. 

But he stopped short of calling for any specific actions. "My job is to make sure we have a viable industry when all of this is over with," Graham said. 

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias GOP lawmaker delays House for second week GOP lawmaker delays House for second week MORE (R-Texas) focused his remarks on the "size, power [and] market cap" of Google, calling the company "larger than Standard Oil was when it was broken up and larger than AT&T was when it was broken up."  

"There are many on this committee, including myself, concerned about potential anticompetitive conduct from Google," Cruz said.

Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnDemocrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Democrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw MORE (R-Tenn.) echoed his sentiments, saying she is concerned "there are openings for market abuse and exploitation of consumer data and also for being able to use these platforms and then drive out competition." 

"That concerns us tremendously," she said. 

The hearing, which focused on the digital advertising ecosystem, comes amid a larger conversation on Capitol Hill and among Democratic 2020 contenders over whether to break up the largest tech companies, including Facebook, Google and Amazon. Some policymakers have called for disbanding the companies as part of larger efforts to regulate their rampant collection of users' data. 

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSanders tears into Trump in response to campaign kickoff rally Sanders tears into Trump in response to campaign kickoff rally Warren introduces universal child care legislation MORE (D-Mass.) was the first presidential candidate to call for breaking up the companies in an expansive policy proposal earlier this year. Other 2020 contenders and Democratic lawmakers have since followed suit. 

Earlier this month, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes reinvigorated the antitrust conversation when he called to break up Facebook in a lengthy New York Times op-ed. 

The calls have exposed rifts among Republicans, with some GOP lawmakers arguing in favor of antitrust enforcement while more business-friendly members have urged against assuming that "big is bad." 

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynWillie Nelson on supporting O'Rourke: 'Anything he wants to do, I'm with Beto' Willie Nelson on supporting O'Rourke: 'Anything he wants to do, I'm with Beto' Koch political arm endorses Colorado Sen. Gardner MORE (R-Texas) at the hearing said he thinks "the discussion of breaking up a Google or breaking up a Facebook is not what we should be doing." He called for giving users "more information" about how the companies use their data rather than imposing stringent regulations on how they operate.

"[Users] can vote with your feet," Cornyn said. "You can either break them up by no longer interacting with them or you can build them up because you’re comfortable with their … standards." 

Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran Senators demand Trump explain decision to deploy troops amid Iran tensions Senators demand Trump explain decision to deploy troops amid Iran tensions MORE (R-Utah) engaged in a similar line of questioning, asking the witnesses why consumers remain on the platforms if their practices are harmful. 

"They like the content, the convenience associated with that platform," Lee said. 

Democrats on the committee, including 2020 contender Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharDemocrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Democrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Biden, Sanders to be center stage at first debate MORE (D-Minn.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), called for some antitrust enforcement. Blumenthal previously supported the calls to break up Facebook.

"The problem here is that Google and Facebook have misused their monopolistic powers," Blumenthal said. "We need both antitrust enforcement and new privacy protections." 

The hearing comes as lawmakers in both chambers seek to hammer out the nation's first comprehensive privacy law.