Kelly Armstrong and Pramila Jayapal are not what you would call natural political allies. Armstrong, a first-term congressman representing North Dakota’s single congressional district, is a conservative Republican whose campaign priorities include limiting abortion and protecting the rights of gun owners. Jayapal, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, represents the uber-liberal Seattle area and has introduced one of the most ambitious Medicare for All proposals.
And yet, at last week’s Big Tech antitrust hearing, the two legislators could hardly have been more on the same page, tag-teaming Jeff Bezos about Amazon’s treatment of third-party sellers and Sundar Pichai about self-dealing in Google’s digital advertising business. If you tuned into the hearing looking for partisan antics and evidence that Congress is hopelessly broken, Republicans Jim Jordan (who impressively pulled off a Michael Flynn reference in an antitrust hearing) and Greg Steube (who stood up for the right of quack doctors to tout hydroxychloroquine) delivered the goods. But the Armstrong-Jayapal connection may end up being a lot more telling. It’s true that the push to rein in the Silicon Valley giants got its early momentum in Washington from Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and antitrust subcommittee chair David Cicilline. But the hearing, and particularly the performance of Armstrong and fellow Republican Ken Buck, provided a rare glimmer of hope that members of Congress can still occasionally work across the aisle, grapple with hard issues, and draw conclusions based on evidence.
“For somewhat different reasons, both sides of the aisle had deep concerns about the power that is in the hands of the major tech companies,” said Buck, a representative from Colorado, in an interview after the hearing, which also included Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Apple CEO Tim Cook. Democrats, he theorized, come more naturally to the issue, since it fits into their general concern over the predations of corporate America. Conservatives, on the other hand, are more worried about the platforms’ control over information, especially the prospect, widely accepted on the right, that the companies discriminate against conservative users. (There is quite a bit of evidence that the opposite is true, but conservatives are not crazy to worry about a bunch of Silicon Valley liberals holding the keys to online communication.) Still, for Buck, a member of the Tea Party-inspired House Freedom Caucus, it took some time to warm up to the idea of increasing regulation of big business.
“I was one of those people that believed that the market could correct itself—until I saw the cheating,” he said. Over the course of the subcommittee’s investigation, which began in June 2019, Buck heard stories from small business owners that convinced him the tech giants were getting away with unfair play thanks to their size. “You can’t cheat like that unless you have a monopoly,” he said. (At the hearing, the CEOs of each company generally denied any anticompetitive behavior.) Eventually Buck drew connections between monopolization and other issues that trouble him about the platforms, like their possible use of slave labor, which he pointedly asked each CEO to disavow. The basic problem, as he sees it, is that the companies have gotten so big, and face so little competition, that they aren’t disciplined by consumer preferences.
Buck also worries about America’s global competitiveness. “I commend them for building these giant companies from very humble beginnings, but you can’t allow companies now to crush innovation because they’ve gotten so large,” he said. He cited the example of PopSockets, a successful manufacturer of cell phone accessories whose CEO testified in January that Amazon “bullied” his company and, after he pulled his business, allowed counterfeit versions of its products to be sold on its platform—ultimately costing PopSockets $10 million in lost revenue. “The reality is, the way we got to a dominant position in the tech sector is because we encouraged innovation,” Buck said. “And if we stop encouraging innovation, we may dominate for the next five or 10 years in particular areas, but 20 years down the road, we won’t be dominant.”