Key Antitrust Lawmaker Sees ‘Reawakening’ in Congress to Perils of Big Tech

David Cicilline Vows More Scrutiny of Facebook, Google...And Trump

David Cicilline
Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON — Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), the new chair of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, is among a number of key congressional Democrats, now empowered with a majority, likely to be a thorn in the side of the Trump administration.

At a hearing earlier this month, he grilled then-Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker over a report that Trump lashed out at him over Michael Cohen’s guilty plea. On Tuesday, he and Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) introduced a bill to require that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s final report be made public. And in a recent interview with Variety, he says he wants to look into whether the White House has tried to interfere in any Justice Department review of major transactions, including the AT&T-Time Warner merger.

He says it is “not appropriate” for Trump to be “weighing in on particular transactions.”

Cicilline also talked about an area where there is bipartisan concern — the concentration of power among tech platforms. He talks of “modernizing” antitrust statutes, something that has already been debated in the Senate and in a series of Federal Trade Commission hearings, particularly with the growing strength of Google and Facebook in the marketplace. The FTC also announced the formation of a task force to monitor big tech.

“People are really concerned about the tremendous concentration of economic power by chiefly the two largest technology platforms that really act as the gatekeeper into commerce, the gatekeeper into trustworthy, reliable news and information,” Cicilline said. “There aren’t easy answers to this, but we have to recognize the challenge, take it on in a serious way, and be able to work together in a bipartisan way.”

He also plans to reintroduce legislation meant to give news publishers more power as they negotiate with Google and Facebook. The ability of those platforms to dominate the local advertising landscape, he said, has contributed to the demise of local journalism. Cicilline is the former mayor of Providence, R.I., and even earned a Screen Actors Guild card for playing himself on the TV series “Providence.”

The antitrust subcommittee has oversight over regulatory agencies, but not authority to greenlight or reject major transactions. Still, it’s likely that the committee will hold hearings on major mergers, including the proposed T-Mobile-Sprint transaction. See more from Variety‘s interview with Cicilline below.

Do you see any kind of a shift in how lawmakers are talking about consolidation and concentration? Now we see Republicans talking about it, especially when it comes to tech platforms.
I think there is growing recognition on the part of Democrats and Republicans that this is a very serious issue. People across the country are expressing their concerns to their member of Congress. And it ought to be bipartisan. I have had a number of Republican colleagues approach me about expressing a willingness to work with me on these issues.

President Trump has said publicly that the administration is looking into potential antitrust problems with Amazon, Google, and Facebook.
Sadly, when the President speaks about it, it very often has to do with the identity of the owner of a company, or his perception that a platform has been unfavorable to him. It’s never any intellectual understanding of antitrust and competition policy. … The Department of Justice has almost quasi judicial responsibilities to do enforcement and antitrust, to bring enforcement actions or to approve or disapprove certain transactions. And it ought never be influenced by the President’s view one way or the other, so it is just not appropriate for the president to do that.

How do you think the Justice Department handled the AT&T-Time Warner transaction?
The thing that I was particularly concerned about, regardless of the decision, was some reporting about some contacts between officials in the White House and the regulators… We really need to protect the integrity of the antitrust process and the enforcement process. We need to make sure that judgments are being made based on evidence and free from political interference by the White House, the President or anyone his staff. [Makan Delrahim, the chief of the Antitrust Division, said in a sworn affidavit that Trump’s views did not play “any role in my consideration of the transaction and any suggestions to the contrary are false.”]

Will you try to get records from the Justice Department of their review of the transaction?
I am interested to learn and assure myself and other members of the committee that there is no political interference in any of these mergers or any Department of Justice reviews of these transactions. The questions weren’t completely answered. We didn’t do oversight in the last Congress because Republicans really didn’t let us, so we will have an opportunity to do some oversight as well.

So would that include going back to the AT&T-Time Warner merger?
Yes. It’s not time limited.

One proposal for updating antitrust statutes has been to establish a review of the impact of mergers that have already been approved.
Determinations are made about a particular merger, and I think they are good faith judgments most of the time, and they are predictions about what is likely to happen. But then there is not really an opportunity to go back and, a year from the transaction, see what has actually happened in the marketplace, and were the projections that were made, correct. … I do think having that kind of review makes sense. … It creates some uncertainty in the market, so you have to be careful about it, but I do think that these are big transactions that don’t often have a look again once the transaction is approved, and may not have worked out the way everyone expected them to. One perfect example of that is the Facebook acquisition of What’s App and Instagram, and I think there is a real question as to whether that should have been permitted, and having some opportunity to look back on transactions.

Would that include the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger? There were some calls to look at that again after the expiration of the conditions that were placed on the transaction.
I think all of these very large transactions that are resulting in tremendous concentrations in the marketplace need to be looked at in a very serious way. We need our antitrust enforcers to be very vigilant in protecting competition, and we need to be sure that Congress is giving them tools both statutorily and in the resources they need to do their work. We are seeing the greatest concentration of economic power in our lifetimes, and with that comes very often a tremendous concentration of political power. And that sometimes makes change more difficult. But this is an economy that is not working for lots and lots of people in this country. And when you look at income inequality in this country, and you see wealth gains at the very top and you see that wages have basically remained stagnant, that is not by accident. That is a direct result of policies and regulations, and tax policies and other policies, that were put into place and are resulting in this enormous concentration of economic power, and Congress has a responsibility to do something about it.

What do you think of the way the DOJ under Makan Delrahim has pursued antitrust policy? One of his priorities is to avoid approving transactions that include behavioral conditions, and instead require structural changes to a transaction.
I look forward to having a very close working relationship with him. I think he has said and done a number of things that gives me confidence that he takes this seriously, and I think Congress has a responsibility to be a good partner, to be promoting pro-competition policies, and to make sure that we have an existing legislative architecture that makes the work of the Antitrust Division successful. In general, the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice has not been particularly strong for a long time. I think Congress hasn’t done a lot to promote that and insist on it. I do think there is kind of a reawakening in the Congress, and a deeper understanding that one of the reasons the economy is not working is because of this tremendous concentration of economic power. This Congress is going to be an opportunity to really take a fresh look at our antitrust statutes, to really raise these issues in a serious way for the first time in a very long time, and then use that as an opportunity to modernize the statutes, to make sure that the agencies have the resources that they need.

You have also proposed newspaper competition legislation, which would allow publishers to …
Collude. Which seems kind of funny coming from a person who prides himself on being against economic collusion. This is an area that has particularly serious consequences for our democracy, and that is that the two large technology platforms are sort of taking all the revenue our online news publishers and newspapers, and literally putting newspapers out of business. And as a result of their huge power in the marketplace, they essentially dictate the terms to small news outlets and publishers. News outlets like the Providence Journal, they don’t have the ability to negotiate with Google and Facebook. So they have to accept whatever terms they given them. And as a result of that, we have a system where a huge percentage of revenues are going to those two online platforms, and we are seeing significant decreases in ad revenue for newspapers. What my legislation will do, and I intend to reintroduce this, is it will allow those small publishers to come together for the purposes of negotiating with those large technology platforms. Not on price, just on attribution, placement, a series of other issues that relate to protecting the ability of these producers of the content to be able to negotiate and have some bargaining power for a limited period of time. … If we don’t, we are going to continue to lose reliable trustworthy local news sources. So this is about more than the production of widgets; this is about our access to news and information to make informed decisions in a democracy.

What concerns do you have about the proposed T-Mobile-Sprint merger? [A subcommittee hearing was delayed earlier this month and will be rescheduled.]
I have concerns about the impact of this transaction on consumer choice, on innovation, on price, on jobs, on wages, so you know all of those things that you worry about when big transactions happen that can result in increased prices for consumers, loss of jobs, less innovation, less competition.

Do you envision having more hearings on specific transactions?
Well, this is a big pending transaction, but what I expect the antitrust subcommittee to do is begin with a real review of the antitrust statutory architecture. Most of our statutes were written almost 100 years ago during the railroad monopolies. The first question is, “Are they written in a way that is effective for what they are trying to accomplish in a 21st century economy, with a very different economy, with very different industries that are seeing tremendous concentrations of economic power?” So kind of modernizing the antitrust statutes, looking at a kind of top to bottom review. “Are they working?”