Democrats Slam Corporate Power With Vow of Antitrust Crackdown

Naomi Nix, Ben Brody and David McLaughlin
Democrats Slam Corporate Power With Vow of Antitrust Crackdown

(Bloomberg) -- Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls assailed the power that the biggest U.S. corporations have been allowed to accumulate and pledged stricter antitrust enforcement.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker sounded the strongest notes against corporate consolidation during the first Democratic debate in Miami on Wednesday, with each making promises for more robust scrutiny.

“We’ve had the laws out there for a long time to be able to fight back,” said Warren, who has called for breaking up big corporations. “What’s been missing is courage -- courage in Washington to take on the giants. That’s part of the corruption in this system.”

Booker called corporate consolidation a “serious problem” and said he’d appoint judges and leadership at the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission that would check the power of dominant companies.

Both candidates struck a critical tone regarding large corporations amid a growing chorus in Washington among Democrats and Republicans that dominant companies, especially tech platforms, have been treated with a light touch by antitrust enforcers for too long. Warren has offered the most aggressive policy on tackling dominance in the technology industry, including calls to unwind acquisitions by some of the biggest players.

Asked why he previously said he didn’t support Warren’s call to break up big tech companies, Booker appeared to move closer to her position. He said he didn’t disagree with Warren and that the evidence of the consolidation problem was how “dignity is being stripped from labor and we have people that work full-time jobs that still can’t make a living wage.”

For more: Silicon Valley Battered as Washington Turns Up Antitrust Heat

Washington is already stepping up scrutiny of technology giants as the issue of corporate consolidation takes center stage in the 2020 campaign.

The House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee earlier this month started a broad investigation into competition issues in technology markets. Separately, the FTC and the Justice Department have divvied up antitrust scrutiny of four major tech platforms, setting the stage for what could become formal probes.

Several Democrats seeking to unseat President Donald Trump are staking out positions on breaking up some of the internet platforms as some economists, tech experts and investors argue that Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc., Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google have become too dominant and too reckless with users’ personal information.

The so-called techlash has put the companies on the defensive. They’re spending record sums on lobbying and making well-connected hires. They’ve also tried to make the case that they help foster competition and innovation.

Read More: Did Big Tech Get Too Big? U.S. Joins Europe in Asking: QuickTake

While Democratic candidates did address antitrust scrutiny, they didn’t focus on attacking “Wall Street” or big banks during their first debate, though that may change when Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders takes the stage with the rest of the Democratic field on Thursday night, Raymond James’s Ed Mills wrote in a note Thursday.

To date, Warren has offered the most aggressive proposal to reshape technology markets. Under her plan, which she unveiled in a March blog post on Medium, Warren would appoint regulators who would unwind mergers she believes are anticompetitive. In addition, companies with global annual revenue of $25 billion or more would be prohibited from both owning platforms, which she would regulate as public utilities, and offering products and services on them.

Among the deals that Warren has said would be on her chopping block: Amazon’s purchase of the upscale Whole Foods grocery store and Zappos, the digital shoe and clothing retailer. She would also look to undo Facebook’s acquisition of the WhatsApp messaging service and the Instagram photo app. And she would try to undo acquisitions by Google of the driving app Waze, connected-home company Nest, and ad service DoubleClick, which helped make Google an online advertising juggernaut.

U.S. antitrust enforcers approved those deals without objection. Their counterparts in Europe have taken a different approach and cited anticompetitive conduct by the U.S. tech giants in numerous enforcement cases, including that Google’s internet search results unfairly favored its own shopping service over those of its competitors.

Warren’s plan to unwind previous deals could face steep challenges, given federal court rulings. Many observers note that it would be easier for authorities to increase scrutiny of future deals than to carve up existing companies, in part because enforcers have a high legal bar to prove dominant companies are thwarting competition.

To split off Instagram and WhatsApp from Facebook, for instance, authorities would have to find evidence that those acquisitions harmed consumers by squelching competition from an emerging rival. That challenge could become tougher as Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg moves to integrate Facebook more tightly with those companies -- potentially making it harder to disentangle them.

(Updates with analyst in 11th paragraph.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Naomi Nix in Washington at nnix1@bloomberg.net;Ben Brody in Washington at btenerellabr@bloomberg.net;David McLaughlin in Washington at dmclaughlin9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sara Forden at sforden@bloomberg.net, Michael Shepard

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