House Hearings Consider Balance of Competition, Privacy

The House Judiciary Committee held hearings that included testimony about how tech giants Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google have collected significant quantities of data that give them a dominant market power that endangers consumer privacy. House Republicans, however, noted that strong data protection regulations in Europe, as well as other privacy regulations, could hurt competition among these companies. The hearing is the latest effort in the House’s antitrust investigation into digital giants.

The New York Times lists some of the recent attempts to rein in these companies: a Justice Department probe into Google, a Federal Trade Commission look into Facebook as well as state attorneys general investigation into both companies.

In Europe, “Germany’s antitrust authority, for example, has told Facebook that it cannot automatically share data among its different services, like Instagram and WhatsApp.” Although a court overturned that action, “the regulator has said it will appeal the decision.”

“It’s increasingly clear that the relationship between competition and privacy is not either-or,” said antitrust subcommittee chair David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) at the Judiciary Committee hearing. “They’re mutually reinforcing concepts that must be at the forefront as we consider proposals to restore the Internet to its full promise.” Federal Trade Commission Democratic member Rohit Chopra added that, “when there’s so few dominant players, that opens up more abuses of privacy.”

But those on the right “have argued that efforts to protect consumer privacy and bolster competition may work at cross purposes.” Scholar Roslyn Layton, for example, said Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation “simply entrenched the tech giants by burdening start-ups that could challenge them,” and Republican FTC member Noah Phillips stated that, “Google had cut off third parties’ access to certain data last year, potentially hurting their ability to compete with the search giant while bolstering user privacy.” Privacy, he added, is important but “comes with trade-offs.”

The House antitrust investigation, to continue into 2020, will look into documents “including emails from top executives like Larry Page of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jeff Bezos of Amazon” as well as information from 80+ companies “about competing with the four major players.”

Cicilline stated that the committee, which had received “tens of thousands” of documents in response to its requests,” hopes to “conclude our evidence collection end of this year, beginning of next year, with the idea that we will have a final report and set of recommendations in the first part of next year.”