Senate Interest in Big Tech Regulation Grows on Both Sides

Klobuchar antitrust proposal and Hawley ban on mergers up ante for social media companies

Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) and Josh Hawley (R., Mo.)
Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) and Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) / Getty Images
February 4, 2021

A new bill introduced by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) would radically revamp government antitrust regulation and enforcement, signaling increased willingness by Democratic lawmakers to take on big tech companies.

The "Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act" combines a bevy of reforms that would give new tools to antitrust regulators and change underlying legal standards for determining that a proposed merger would harm competition. The legislation would make it significantly easier to bring anti-monopoly tools to bear against social media platforms.

Klobuchar's proposal comes on the heels of a preemptive ban proposed Wednesday by Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) on any mergers and acquisitions by big tech platforms. The Hawley amendment would bar Facebook and Twitter, among other companies, from acquiring any competitors.

The two pieces of legislation signal a growing opposition toward big tech companies in the Senate. In the evenly divided Senate, Klobuchar's bill would require at least 10 Republican votes to pass.

Klobuchar has crusaded on antitrust issues for the bulk of her Senate career. She is the incoming head of the Senate antitrust committee, and her book Antitrust: Taking on Monopoly Power From the Gilded Age to the Digital Age will be released in April.

Klobuchar's bill would place the burden of proof on dominant firms in merger cases to show that the merger does not risk making markets less competitive. It would provide additional funds for regulators to study past mergers in greater depth. And it would allow antitrust regulators to impose new civil penalties for violations of monopoly law, including fines of up to 15 percent of a company's U.S. revenue.

Currently, almost all antitrust cases require claimants to precisely define the market in which anticompetitive behavior by the company is taking place. Klobuchar's bill would allow companies to face liability even if the market is not strictly defined.

The Biden administration has inherited major regulatory actions against big tech companies from the previous administration. The Trump Justice Department's chief antitrust officer brought a major monopoly case against Google, and the Federal Trade Commission sued Facebook in December for "anticompetitive conduct." Those cases and increased Senate interest in regulating big tech will create a dilemma for the new administration, which has hired multiple former Facebook executives.