In House Antitrust Hearing, Lawmakers Focus on Harms to Privacy

WASHINGTON — House lawmakers on Friday pressed experts on how the market power of major tech platforms could hurt consumer privacy, showing that an antitrust investigation into Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon is growing to include deeper questions about their business models.

Lawmakers from the Judiciary Committee heard testimony that the tech giants have amassed vast quantities of data that give them an advantage over rivals, and that their dominance allows them to get away with more aggressive data collection.

But some Republicans expressed concerns that efforts to regulate privacy, including aggressive data protection regulations in Europe, could hurt competition among internet firms.

The hearing was the latest in a wide-ranging antitrust investigation by the House into the companies. Google has also disclosed that it is the subject of a Justice Department investigation, while Facebook said this year that the Federal Trade Commission was looking at its practices. State attorneys general are investigating the two companies as well.

And elsewhere in the world, some competition regulators are looking at the way that online data collection gives platforms an undue competitive advantage. Germany’s antitrust authority, for example, has told Facebook that it cannot automatically share data among its different services, like Instagram and WhatsApp. A court overturned the action in August, though the regulator has said it will appeal the decision.

Now the antitrust questions being asked by lawmakers and regulators are increasingly becoming intertwined with the debate over how to regulate privacy online.

“It’s increasingly clear that the relationship between competition and privacy is not either-or,” Representative David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island and chairman of the antitrust subcommittee, said at Friday’s hearing. “They’re mutually reinforcing concepts that must be at the forefront as we consider proposals to restore the internet to its full promise.”

Proponents of greater antitrust enforcement argue that cracking down on the platforms will make it harder for the companies to pursue a business model that relies on the aggressive monetization of consumer data.

“When there’s so few dominant players, that opens up more abuses of privacy,” said Rohit Chopra, a Democratic member of the Federal Trade Commission.

But policymakers and experts on the right have argued that efforts to protect consumer privacy and bolster competition may work at cross purposes. Roslyn Layton, a scholar who testified at the hearing, said Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, which was created to let people request their online data, had simply entrenched the tech giants by burdening start-ups that could challenge them.

In August, Noah Phillips, a Republican member of the F.T.C., said in a statement 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. He said that privacy “is important” but that consumers “and policymakers alike must recognize, however, that it comes with trade-offs.”

The House antitrust investigation is expected to continue into 2020. Last month, the committee asked tech companies for a tranche of documents, including emails from top executives like Larry Page of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jeff Bezos of Amazon. The panel also contacted more than 80 companies for information about competing with the four major players.

Mr. Cicilline said on Friday that the committee had received “tens of thousands” of documents in response to its requests.

“Our hope is 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, providing us enough time to act on that” before the end of the current congressional session, he said.

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