CBS News

By Musadiq Bidar and Jack Turman

Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a fierce advocate of strengthening antitrust laws, says there's bipartisan interest among lawmakers to push for reforms that would increase their oversight of big tech companies and stop further consolidation of the industry.

Klobuchar, who is participating in a virtual panel discussion at the South by Southwest festival Friday about forging a new social contract with big tech, said the "unbridled monopoly" of the tech industry has given companies immense lobbying power in Washington for years.

"I saw firsthand the power of their lobby, which comes with being a monopoly because no one wants to piss them off. No one in Washington, no one in the courts," Klobuchar told CBS News during an interview ahead of her appearance at the festival.

She argued that breaking up big tech companies would also help curb the spread of misinformation, while providing more data privacy protections for consumers. 

"If you unleash the power of capitalism, new companies could come up and have better approaches and features and bells and whistles for privacy and misinformation, but that's not going to happen if the monopolies keep buying out all the, what are called 'nascent competitors' that could disrupt the market, and provide those services," Klobuchar said. 

In October, a 16-month long House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee investigation into Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon revealed that the platforms "wield tremendous power" and "have become the kinds of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons and railroad tycoons." The report said the tech companies use their dominance in ways that erode entrepreneurship, degrade privacy online, and weaken democracy.

Klobuchar, the lead Democrat on the Senate Judiciary's antitrust subcommittee, said that lawmakers need to look back at Facebook's purchase of Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014, adding that it is not too late to break them up.

In December, the Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit alleging that Facebook is "illegally maintaining its personal social networking monopoly through a years-long course of anticompetitive conduct" and asked a federal court to force Facebook to sell Instagram and WhatsApp. 

Facebook fired back last week, saying it has made an "enormous investment" developing Instagram and WhatsApp, and it accused the government of wanting a "do-over" of acquisitions previously cleared by the FTC. Facebook said the lawsuit now "sends a dangerous message that no sale is ever final" and at the same time argued the government's "complaints do not credibly claim" that Facebook's acquisitions of competitors harmed consumers. The company has asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit.

Klobuchar's new antitrust bill would force companies, rather than the government, to prove merging with a competitor won't hurt consumers or reduce competition. She said it would also provide increased funding for the FTC and the Department of Justice's antitrust division so the U.S. government isn't challenging the world's biggest companies with "duct tape and band-aids."

Aside from big tech, Klobuchar said market consolidation is a concern in industries ranging from cat food to caskets and added that mergers across various sectors of the economy have exacerbated the problem, especially because the pandemic has forced thousands of small businesses to close.

"The court has interpreted existing antitrust laws that worked so well for years, in such a way that it is really hard to challenge mergers and we've seen increasing industry consolidation," she added.

She's also pushing for changes to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which provides online platforms immunity from being held responsible for content that others post on their sites.

Social media companies argue that Section 230 encourages free expression and changing it would tear down their business models. When Klobuchar was running for president two years ago, she told the festival that she wants to see Section 230 reforms to create accountability without destroying the online platforms.

Klobuchar is co-sponsoring the recently proposed Safe Tech Act, which would make significant changes to Section 230 if passed. 

Under the act, victims could seek court orders if misuse of a provider's service is likely to cause irreparable harm, give the family of a decedent the chance to file lawsuits against platforms that may have directly contributed to a loss of life, and says that Section 230 doesn't impair enforcement of civil rights laws or cyberbullying laws.

The Safe Tech Act would also add a clarification of Section 230 that would mean social media companies would not be shielded from liability stemming from advertisements and other paid content on their platforms. Twitter permanently banned political ads on its platform in October of 2019. Facebook put political ads on a temporary hiatus following the November presidential election, while Google paused political ads following the deadly riots at the U.S Capitol in January. 

Since then, both Google and Facebook have removed the bans and are allowing political ads on their platforms again. Klobuchar told CBS News she wants the companies to have human moderators rather than computer algorithms reviewing every piece of political advertisement before it is published.

Facebook relies on its algorithms to detect and take action against harmful content in paid ads and human moderators do not review every ad before its published, the company's CEO and Founder Mark Zuckerberg told lawmakers during a congressional hearing in October. 

"They are the biggest companies in the world," Klobuchar said. "They make billions of dollars off of you and your data and off the American people, so they have an obligation to take some of those profits and put them into people who actually look at the ads to protect us."

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