U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Lafayette Democrat whose 2nd Congressional District includes Vail, earned national headlines late last month for his aggressive questioning of the nation’s top four tech titans during a House antitrust subcommittee hearing.
“The growing concentration and market power of large technology companies in the digital marketplace warrants congressional attention, scrutiny, and ultimately, action,” tweeted Neguse, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law.
Neguse, the former director of Colorado’s consumer protection agency, grilled the heads of Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google a day after doing the same in a tense session with Attorney General William Barr, whose Department of Justice may file an antitrust lawsuit against Google as soon as this summer, according to the Washington Post.
Barr has previously said that Big Tech may be in danger of losing its Section 230 protections against liability lawsuits for posting dangerous content.
Rep. David N. Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat and the chairman of the antitrust subcommittee, is reportedly expected to issue a report in August that could make a case for updating federal rules to give regulators more power to go after Big Tech.
Neguse, during the July 29 tech hearing, cited an email by Facebook’s chief financial officer describing Facebook’s merger strategy as a “land grab,” adding that the social media giant’s acquisition of Instagram in 2012 reflected that strategy.
CNN and other major national media outlets reported the “land grab” questioning by Neguse. All four tech companies pointed to their entrepreneurial success and how it’s benefited small businesses around the nation.
Google chief executive Sundar Pichai, according to CNN, disputed the characterization that the company steals content to disadvantage competition: “Today, we support 1.4 million small businesses supporting over $385 billion in their core economic activity. We see many businesses thrive, particularly even during the pandemic.”
That was essentially the argument of 3C President Jake Ward in a phone interview with RealVail.com in June when his organization sent a letter to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed by 154 Colorado businesses arguing this is “the wrong time to demand changes in digital technology operations and business models.” Ward made the case that the COVID-19 pandemic makes free or low-cost tech tools all the more essential for small businesses in Colorado.
“So if you over-regulate Google or you overregulate Facebook or even Salesforce, you increase a pressure on the model they’ve used to price products and the price is going to go up,” said Ward, who heads up the nonprofit Connected Commerce Council. “Ultimately, you’re going to change the product, change the innovation, change what’s accessible to small businesses.”
But Chris Romer, president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership – the valley-wide chamber of commerce in Eagle County – said he’s not hearing that as a top concern from members at this point.
“It’s not something I hear about from people on a regular basis. People are much more focused on the short term and federal relief,” said Romer, who was highly critical of the Senate’s failure last week to pass another round of pandemic relief. “What is the next round of federal relief going to look like? What is the either business and or individual unemployment stipend going to look like, and what is the winter operating season going to look like?”
Secondarily, Romer said his members have serious workforce concerns.
“What is my workforce going to look like with visas being shut down by executive order — people are worried about that,” Romer said, acknowledging those issues are somewhat aligned with the tech industry as it fights to protect high-skilled H1-B visas. “We’re more worried about the H2- B and the J-1, but regardless, the workforce issue is a secondary point of concern, and I’m not hearing from anybody around the tech tools component.”
Ward said Gov. Polis, who used to represent Vail in Congress as Neguse’s predecessor in CD2 and made millions in online sales with tech startup companies, understands the need to keep technology costs low for small businesses.
“[Polis] absolutely understood that, gets it as well as anybody we’ve talked to in the policy space,” Ward said. “Gov. Polis knows this without me having to tell him. He is very bright guy who has worked in this space for a long time. It is literally who he is.”
Neguse’s Republican opponent for his CD2 seat in the Nov. 3 election, Boulder’s Dr. Charlie Winn, did not respond to an initial Aug. 12 email requesting comment, but on Sept. 11 – in an email via his campaign manager — provided this statement regarding the topics of “determining the truth, blocking hate and preventing big tech companies from unfair competition:”
“As a student in 1965-66 I spent a year living on border between East and West Germany. This gave an opportunity to hear the ‘truth’ from both sides of the ‘Iron Curtain’. The reports were never actual lies but certainly weren’t the whole truth and adjectives and adverbs certainly made the stories different. Who gets to determine the truth? Let it come out by transparency. While in college there was a speaker invited to campus to advocate for phrenology as a determinate of intelligence. This is certainly an abhorrent topic. But I advocated to let him speak as I believed he would be shown to be just a shallow person with a false message. To deny him a chance to speak would be only to give him a larger stage. He came, bombed and was never heard after that. Empty hate can’t stand the light. I applaud Congress’ constant vigilance to protect intellectual property and stand up for entrepreneurs and other innovators. Big isn’t always bad unless they use their financial clout to bully and stifle competitors. Oversight is certainly important. In the late ‘90’s during the tech boom, innovation was rewarded when many of the larger companies rewarded innovation by purchasing the novel ideas.”
While Neguse is making a name for himself in Congress on the tech topic, which is increasingly becoming a campaign issue in the fight for the White House as well, it is apparently not as hot a topic in the other congressional district that encompasses roughly two-thirds of Eagle County – at least for Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush.
The 3rd Congressional District candidate declined to comment on the tech antitrust issue. Her Republican opponent in the Nov. 3 election, Lauren Boebert, did issue an email statement via a campaign staff member:
“I was pleased to see members of Congress asking good questions of the big tech companies about anti-competitive practices, their relationships with communist China, the type of labor they use to manufacture their products and the concerns over political discrimination. Shining a little sunlight on their business practices is a healthy way to make sure the public stays informed and that Congress is serious about its oversight responsibilities,” Boebert’s campaign wrote.
Her campaign then referenced Big Tech congressional questioning from U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, a Republican former district attorney from northeastern Colorado who also currently serves as chairman for the Colorado Republican Party.
“Representative Buck certainly brought up some great points about stifling small and medium-sized businesses in what appeared to him to be monopolistic behavior,” Boebert’s campaign wrote. “I’d echo his sentiment that we never want to be in the business of punishing their success, we just want to make sure they are competing fairly in the marketplace.”
Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have relentlessly pounded Big Tech for a perceived lack of fairness and bias against conservative causes in search and social media, while Democrats have hammered the companies for failing to rein in hate speech and violence.
Facebook Director of Policy Communications Robert Traynham, in a July interview with RealVail.com, put the onus on voters to decide these issues in the political sphere, touting Facebook’s voter registration push that kicked off on July 4.
“This was the right thing to do because we do believe that voice is all about elections and vice versa and holding elected officials accountable,” said Traynham, who then outlined the company’s sweeping plan to fight hate speech and violence online.
“We invest billions of dollars each year to keep our community safe, and we are always continuously working with outside experts to review and update our policies,” Traynham said. “We’ve opened up ourselves to a civil rights audit. We have banned 250 white supremacist organizations from the platform for Facebook and Instagram.
“The investments that we continue to make in artificial intelligence means that we find nearly 90% of hate speech and we take action even before it gets posted and we take that down,” he added. “But there’s always, always, always room for improvement, and so we constantly know that we have more work to do.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Dr. Charlie Winn, the Republican candidate for the 2nd Congressional District seat current held by U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat.