ICYMI: Colorado’s congressional odd couple, Buck and Neguse, is taking on Big Tech

March 15, 2021

By JUSTIN WINGERTER | jwingerter@denverpost.com | The Denver Post

March 15, 2021 at 6:00 a.m.

U.S. Rep. Ken Buck is not your typical anti-monopoly crusader.

The conservative congressman from Windsor is a free-market evangelist who once believed that the monopolistic behavior of Big Tech firms like GoogleAmazonApple and Facebook could be resolved by businesses and consumers — and without government intervention.

“Then, I started learning more and more about these Big Tech monopoly platforms and how they were abusing their position and really crushing competition in the marketplace,” Buck told The Post in an interview. “As a (former) prosecutor, I was really offended by their conduct. It is, to me, borderline criminal.”

After thriving for decades on the largely unregulated internet and amassing billions of customers and trillions of dollars along the way, Big Tech has come under bipartisan scrutiny for everything from censorship and misinformation to acquiring competitors and collecting personal data. The result could be a “reckoning,” in Buck’s words, for an industry that touches the daily lives of nearly every American.

Buck is the top Republican on the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, a 24-person panel led by Democrats that spent 16 months interrogating the biggest billionaires in technology, amassing more than one million pages of documents and writing a scathing 450-page report, released in October, that alleges Big Tech giants are acting like monopolies. (Antitrust, the committee’s top focus, refers to laws that govern monopolies.)

Buck is joined on the subcommittee by Rep. Joe Neguse, a progressive Democrat from Lafayette, a friend of Buck’s and former vice chair of the subcommittee. As a liberal who’s naturally skeptical of massive corporations, Neguse came more easily to an antitrust conclusion, saying in an interview that the “documentary evidence we amassed during the course of the investigation” made it apparent. “I have been very clear that I believe Facebook, for example, is a monopoly,” he added.

The congressional investigation into Big Tech defies the stereotype of D.C. being a place where ideologues retreat into partisan corners and shout at the other side. Instead, there are bipartisan agreements and, in Buck’s case, a willingness to reconsider long-held economic views.

Buck, a supporter of former President Donald Trump, teamed up Wednesday with Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat and prosecutor in Trump’s second impeachment trial, to introduce legislation that they say would weaken Big Tech’s hold on the news industry by allowing small news outlets to negotiate collectively with tech giants like Google and Facebook.

“Congressman Ken Buck has served as the tip of the spear in the conservative fight to hold Big Tech accountable,” said Colorado resident Mike Davis, president and founder of the conservative Internet Accountability Project. “He has been a visionary on this issue. He has seen the problem and confronted the problem before almost all other House Republicans.”

How it started

Buck had long been skeptical of the government’s role in blocking mergers, including the two-year, $26 billion merger between Sprint and T-Mobile that was finalized last year. Companies like PopSockets changed his mind.

Founded seven years ago in a Boulder garage by philosophy professor David Barnett, PopSockets manufactures removable grips for cellphones that had been sold on Amazon. It ended its partnership with Amazon in August 2018, after a flood of counterfeits and knockoffs on the website was met with silence by Amazon, according to Barnett’s testimony before the subcommittee.

Amazon responded to this uncoupling with “strong-arming and bullying,” Barnett told the antitrust subcommittee during a January 2020 hearing in Boulder. It didn’t pay PopSockets, refused to let another company sell on its site because it had worked with PopSockets and sold counterfeit grips in place of PopSockets.

“I think competition breeds innovation and I think these particular companies have done everything they can to crush innovation and competition,” Buck told The Post, referring to the four tech giants that the subcommittee investigated along with a fifth it did not: Twitter.

Neguse entered Congress with concerns about Big Tech’s control of the online marketplace. He said the antitrust subcommittee’s investigation “certainly strengthened my preexisting concerns about the concentration in the digital marketplace.”

The young and rising star in Colorado politics grilled CEOs from Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google in July 2020, particularly Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. Neguse and Zuckerberg debated whether Facebook is a monopoly, as Neguse alleged and Zuckerberg denied.

During the hearing, Neguse held in his hands internal Facebook documents in which the company boasted that it controlled 95% of U.S. social media and had conducted “a land grab” of competitors. Neguse read aloud from an email Zuckerberg sent in 2012 that said Facebook “can likely just buy any competitive startup but it will be awhile before we can buy Google.” Zuckerberg said he couldn’t recall sending the email but that it was likely a joke.

“Facebook has used its market power,” Neguse told Zuckerberg, “to either purchase or replicate the competition. Facebook, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp (and) Instagram are now the most downloaded apps of the last decade. Your company, sir, owns them all and we have a word for that. That word is monopoly.”

How it’s going

With its investigation of the four Big Tech companies in the rearview mirror, the antitrust subcommittee now must decide whether to craft a package of bills or take a piecemeal approach to lessening the companies’ power. This, in other words, is the hard part.

“A more extreme remedy has to be considered, although I’m not prepared at this point to say it’s the right remedy. There are those who are advocating against allowing these platforms to operate product lines and the platform,” Buck said, referring to companies such as Amazon that have operated an online marketplace and sell products on it.

Buck’s views are encapsulated in a 19-page report he issued last year. In it, he argues Congress should look to the Hepburn Act of 1906 for guidance. That law prohibited railroad companies from also owning mining companies, which would have given them control of the full production line.

“Now, it doesn’t offend me that a supermarket has their own brand of grape jelly, because there are dozens and dozens of supermarket chains,” Buck said Thursday. “It does offend me that an online retailer like Amazon would start a product line and then discriminate against competitors.”

Democrats and Republicans on the subcommittee agree that antitrust agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, need more money if they are to beat Big Tech in court now and in the future. (The FTC is currently suing Facebook). There is also bipartisan agreement on the need for data portability and interoperability — aka the right for social media users to own and transfer the data they create. User data is Facebook’s most profitable asset.

And then there’s the matter of mergers and acquisitions, which in recent decades have been scrutinized when there is reason to believe they would cause prices to rise. Amie Stepanovich is the executive director of Silicon Flatirons, an organization at the University of Colorado that studies tech law and policy. She said that the government has been focused on mergers “through that lens of price” for consumers.

“But in the tech space,” she said, “most things don’t cost anything.”

Democrats and Republicans on the antitrust subcommittee agree that standard doesn’t apply neatly to Big Tech. Instead, they want the government to refocus enforcement on corporations growing too large. That and “the idea that these mergers can be undone,” Stepanovich said, sends a chill through Big Tech.

“They are really scared of this conversation and it could have a huge impact on the way they do business — any tech company does business — moving forward.”

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