As Big Tech’s dominance over independent thought, viewpoint diversity, market access, and election integrity continues to grow, one thing is clear: mega-corporate power, exercised at scale, can be a threat to individual liberty and the free market. Conservatives must have a response.
The House antitrust subcommittee has spent the last 16 months aggressively investigating the market dominance of Big Tech monopolies, and last week, the committee’s Democrats released a blockbuster 450-page report detailing their findings and proposed solutions.
Most interesting to observers on the right was the report authored by Republican Ken Buck of Colorado. Buck’s report, styled as a “third way,” agreed with many of the investigation’s findings of the “fundamentally anticompetitive” behavior of the tech platforms and some of the report’s proposed solutions, though diverged from more aggressive proposals that would legislate the structural breakup of the tech companies.
In issuing his own report, co-signed by Republicans Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), and Doug Collins (Ga.), Buck has cemented his emergence as one of the Republican Party’s most thoughtful members willing to grapple with the benefits and challenges of corporate power in the digital realm.
This is, in part, because he’s done the work. Buck attended nearly every hearing the subcommittee convened as part of their 16-month investigation, including a field hearing in Colorado, where committee members heard testimony from small businesses tyrannized by the tech titans.
“Democrats and Republicans at times appeared stunned,” observed the Washington Post at the Colorado hearing, “as they heard tales of technology giants wielding their massive footprints as weapons, allegedly copying smaller competitors’ features or tweaking their algorithms in ways that put new companies at a costly disadvantage.”
Similar testimony emerged as part of the committee’s investigation. Customers and merchants anonymously expressed their fear of criticizing the platforms publicly. “It would be commercial suicide to be in Amazon’s crosshairs . . . if Amazon saw us criticizing, I have no doubt they would remove our access and destroy our business.”
An attorney representing app developers told committee staff that his clients “fear retaliation by Apple,” and are “worried that their private communications are being monitored, so they won’t speak out against abusive and discriminatory behavior.”
Small businesses’ ability to compete fairly on their own merits is a driving concern for Buck. In an interview with me earlier this year, he identified antitrust enforcement “as a tool to increase prosperity across the marketplace,” by “mak[ing] sure that the large businesses don’t use their platforms and their position to disincentivize the kind of innovation that comes from small businesses.”
In other words, Buck is a free marketer who is interested in protecting the free market as an equal playing field for businesses both large and small. That a fair and equitable market in tech is threatened by Big Tech’s dominance is a conclusion that is difficult to dismiss.
According to the documents and interviews cited in the majority’s report, and echoed by Buck and his co-signers, Facebook uses a strategy of “acquire, copy, kill” to dominate its small competitors. Amazon uses its knowledge of the prices set by third-party sellers on its platform to undercut competitors with their own product lines, and swipes competitor schematics and internal data under the guise of venture capital opportunities. Apple routinely preferences its products and excludes rivals from its dominant distribution networks. Google promotes its own inferior search results while demoting quality search results from its competitors, all while dominating 94 percent of the global search market. The list goes on.
All of this occurs under the supposed watchful eye of the antitrust enforcement agencies at the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, both of whom the Democrat and Buck reports call out for being asleep at the wheel. Both reports suggest that the enforcement agencies need more resources and firm direction from Congress to better assert themselves as able watchmen of the competitive public square.
Many of the majority’s proposed solutions have been correctly critiqued from the right for being too heavy-handed. Buck’s report, too, rejects some of them. But Buck is also being criticized from the right for even giving credence to law enforcement in the antitrust space as a remedy to Big Tech’s market distortions. However, the “see no evil, hear no evil” approach that some on the right take with regard to the Big Tech companies rings increasingly hollow as evidence of clear and convincing market abuse makes itself plain.
Those who rightly defend the innovation derived from a free market should be equally vigilant about protecting its integrity. In this sense, Buck follows a long conservative tradition that is skeptical of concentrations of power wherever they reside — in the government, but also in Big Tech mega-corporations, which possess more influence and resources than some small countries.
Friedrich Hayek recognized the legitimacy of antitrust enforcement, and warned about corporations using their government connections and lobbying budgets to obtain and protect their market advantage. Russell Kirk advised conservatives against obfuscating reality by clinging to “‘abstractions—that is, political dogmas divorced from practical experience and particular circumstances.”
William F. Buckley cautioned against the cessation of individual power to corporations, or to the government. In “Conscience of a Conservative,” Barry Goldwater urged conservatives to “make war on all monopolies, whether corporate or union,” reminding us that “the enemy of freedom is unrestrained power, and the champions of freedom will fight against the concentration of power wherever they find it.”
In America, the people rule — not the mob, not the bureaucracy, and not the tech oligarchs. Our self-government exists to maintain this balance. It is refreshing to see it at work. And it is refreshing to see clear-eyed, independent thinkers like Buck get the credit they deserve.