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House Panel To Begin Probe Into Powerful Tech Giants

Jun 11, 2019
Originally published on June 11, 2019 8:00 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump has grown more interested in suing big tech companies for being monopolies. He tells CNBC that Europeans have been suing Internet firms so the United States might be doing the same.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We should be doing - they're our companies so they're actually attacking our companies. But we should be doing what they're doing. They think there's a monopoly, but I'm not sure that they think that. They just figure, this is easy money.

INSKEEP: The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission were already preparing investigations of big Internet firms. And this week, a House committee also examines big companies like Facebook and Amazon and Google. Diana Moss joins us next. She's president of the American Antitrust Institute, which studies antitrust laws and cases, gets money from law firms and corporations and sometimes even grants from antitrust settlements.

Good morning.

DIANA MOSS: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Do you see a serious move to act in some way against Internet firms?

MOSS: I think we are seeing more moves - we can put it that way - to take on some of the bigger issues that arise in the tech sector, not only in terms of the competition issues that have arisen as the tech firms have gotten larger and more powerful but also in terms of the other problems that they raise - concerns around privacy, for example, concerns around technology - because they are such a - they are so ubiquitous in the fabric of our lives and our society, our economy.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm glad you got to the question of issues beyond competition because lawmakers at this House hearing today, as I understand it, want to focus on a free press. And one lawmaker is saying the hearing, to him, is about the ability to get reliable local news. How is that an antitrust issue?

MOSS: Well - and that's a really good question. It may or may not be an antitrust issue. The ability of smaller, more diverse voices to sort of bubble up to the top of the news feed on these platforms, the tech platforms, I think, is a pervasive issue. For antitrust, the question always sort of boils down to whether the tech platforms are using their market power to foreclose or exclude their rivals. And those rivals can, you know, can be anywhere from advertisers, to retailers, to, you know, apps providers.

And so enforcers would have to take a really, really close look to develop a story behind how the laws, the competition laws, might be violated by certain types of conduct.

INSKEEP: You know, if the question is, are the big tech firms using their power to squash rivals? - isn't the obvious answer, yes, of course, they do that. And the question is how much we're willing to allow it.

MOSS: That is the question. I think we have to start with vigorous enforcement. We have not seen vigorous antitrust enforcement in the U.S. for many decades now. And my organization has advocated strongly for that for 20 years. So we need enforcers to bring cases. And, you know, that includes not only public enforcers - whether it be the FTC or the DOJ - but also private cases. You know, private enforcement in the U.S. is critically important. And where public enforcement may fall off or be slack, you know, we really count on private enforcers to bring strong cases.

INSKEEP: What does that mean - private enforcers? That means someone brings a class-action lawsuit and says they're being harmed.

MOSS: Absolutely, yes. And in the U.S., we have private rights of action. And, yes, we can bring - private individuals, classes of consumers, typically can bring any type of lawsuit, whether it's a monopolization case, whether it's a case involving collusion or whether it's a merger case.

INSKEEP: Just so I understand - in a sentence or two, is breaking up a big company the main way to deal with a monopolistic situation?

MOSS: I think that's putting the cart before the horse. There have been calls to break up the big techs. But to do that - and that's a big, heavy lift for antitrust. We haven't seen that many cases that involve break-ups. There was Standard Oil, of course. There was AT&T.

INSKEEP: But there are some other things we can do short of that.

Diana Moss, thanks so much - really appreciate it.

MOSS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.