Klobuchar, incoming antitrust chair, eager to take on Big Tech

Minnesota Democrat says current antitrust laws are inadequate for regulating companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks during a news conference in December.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks during a news conference in December. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 28, 2021 at 11:55am

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat set to take control of the Judiciary subcommittee tasked with ensuring competition in the online marketplace, said she is eager to advance antitrust legislation to address the power amassed by large technology firms.

“With a new administration, new leadership at the antitrust agencies, and Democratic majorities in the Senate and the House, we’re well positioned to make competition policy a priority for the first time in decades,” Klobuchar said in a keynote address at the annual State of the Net Conference on Wednesday.

Klobuchar said current antitrust laws are inadequate for regulating companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.

“While we've seen this enormous change in our economy, we really are not as sophisticated as the companies that we should be regulating,” she said. “We need to start by working to strengthen antitrust enforcement and making it more effective.”

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That means new tools and increased funding for the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission, the agencies tasked with enforcing antitrust laws. Klobuchar said she planned to reintroduce several pieces of legislation that sat dormant while Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who is skeptical of new antitrust laws, controlled the subcommittee.

“I've had a good working relationship with [Lee], but I'm looking forward to finally having the gavel to be able to mark up bills and send them to the floor,” Klobuchar said.

She won’t have to wait long. A power-sharing agreement for the 50-50 Senate brokered this week by Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., means control of the Judiciary Committee will pass to Democrats soon.

With the gavel in hand, Klobuchar doesn’t plan to waste time. Market dominance in the technology industry has harmed consumers, she said, and even helped lead to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol by former President Donald Trump’s supporters.

“This concentration of power has raised troubling questions about personal privacy, the security of our elections, and the spread of toxic disinformation,” she said, including “the type of disinformation that helped convince a violent and deeply misinformed mob to storm our Capitol and desecrate the temple of our democracy.”

The need for new antitrust laws is even more pressing because of the coronavirus pandemic, she said, and “the very real risk that we could emerge from it with markets that are more concentrated and less competitive than before.”

Klobuchar will find common cause with Democrats in the House led by her antitrust subcommittee counterpart, Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island. In the previous Congress, Cicilline led a 16-month investigation of market dominance in Silicon Valley that concluded Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google all wield monopoly power online.

The report concluded that antitrust enforcers had failed to stop the companies from gaining market dominance and recommended forcing them to split up their various businesses.

Unlike some of her Democratic colleagues, Klobuchar has not called for the companies to be broken up. But she does want greater scrutiny of the acquisitions that allowed them to amass their current power. And if wrongdoing is uncovered, she wants them to pay up.

Under current law, the FTC and the Justice Department cannot seek civil penalties for antitrust violations, and critics say fines levied in the past are paltry and unlikely to deter bad behavior in the future. But legislation Klobuchar introduced in 2019 would allow the agencies to sue for penalties up to 15 percent of a company’s total U.S. revenues.

She and other Democrats also introduced bills in the 116th Congress that they believe would strengthen the ability of antitrust laws to account for changes in the economy over recent decades.

Another priority for Klobuchar is money. Legislation she introduced in the last Congress with Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa would update pre-merger filing fees for the first time since 2001 to boost the government’s antitrust enforcement budget. She also pushed for and secured an increase in enforcement funding in the fiscal 2021 omnibus spending measure.

In her speech on Wednesday, Klobuchar praised antitrust enforcers under the Trump administration for their landmark lawsuits targeting Google and Facebook, but lamented that they were “constantly being undermined by the political comments of the president.”

She said she believed the new administration would continue the cases against Google and Facebook and expressed confidence in Merrick Garland, President Joe Biden’s nominee for attorney general.

“He's someone that as a judge actually reviewed antitrust cases [and] when President Biden introduced him to the country, he actually mentioned antitrust,” she said. “So I view those as good signs.”