David Cicilline led the fight against Big Tech. Here's what comes next.
The House is losing its top antitrust reform champion later this year when Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) resigns.
The congressman announced last month that he will retire from Congress in June to take a role as president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, a community foundation and largest funder of nonprofit organizations in the state, ending his seven-term run in the House.
By reaching across the aisle, Cicilline led the House Judiciary Committee, as chair of the antitrust subcommittee, in advancing a series of bipartisan proposals to revamp antitrust laws in a way that targeted the nation’s largest tech companies.
Cicilline and his coalition of antitrust reform supporters said the rules on the books fail to address the modern day industry giants, namely Meta, Amazon, Google and Apple.
The proposals sought to address concerns critics said the tech platforms raised, such as boosting their own products and services over rival offerings, and to redefine what firms qualify as dominant companies based on market cap and user base numbers.
But his efforts were often met with opposition.
The companies have pushed back strongly on that assertion, with tech groups arguing that the proposals would force them to unwind services and features users enjoyed.
Cicilline and the bills' supporters said the bills would not have the effect, but failed to pass any of them. Despite the rare bipartisan support, most of the proposals failed to make it to President Biden’s desk in the last Congress.
Lobbying during a House transition
The combination of hefty lobbying from tech giants and a flip in House control to GOP leaders means the antitrust proposals are seemingly at a standstill.
While a handful of Congressional Republicans support taking antitrust action against big tech companies, GOP lawmakers as whole have focused their tech agenda on content moderation and censorship.
In an interview with The Hill, Cicilline said he is still hopeful there is still a path forward for the agenda he laid the groundwork for in the House.
“There's still really strong bipartisan support for that whole package. We had the votes in the last Congress. My sense is we have the votes in this Congress, too. I think what will make it a little more challenging for the next couple of years is the Republican House leadership's opposition to these bills,” Cicilline told The Hill.
In another blow to the antitrust reform push, House GOP leaders replaced Cicilline’s Republican counterpart in the fight, Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), in the top spot on the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee.
When they took control this year, Republicans placed Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a staunch libertarian, as subcommittee chair in yet another sign that they won’t take up the bills.
How Cicilline joined the antitrust fight
Cicilline was hesitant at first to take the reins as ranking member of the antitrust subcommittee in 2017. Rich Luchette, a longtime former senior advisor to Cicilline, said he even advised his boss against doing so.
“I was thinking to myself, 'He's in leadership, he's gonna have his hands full with that, he should pick one lane. And what is antitrust anyways?” he said, referring to lawmaker's role as co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.
“Fortunately, he did not listen to me,” Luchette added.
For Cicilline, his reluctance was rooted in the fact that he had little experience with antitrust law. But upon advice from Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, he took the post.
“He said, ‘Sometimes you should take a new assignment just because you're going to stretch your mind and learn something new," Cicilline said.
"And it turned out to be very good advice, because shortly after taking this role, the big Cambridge Analytica breach was revealed, and a lot of information about what was happening online and the focus really became the role of these technology platforms in not only our economy, but in our democracy,” he continued.
While Democrats were still in the minority, Cicilline started by learning more about the issues.
His tutorial on the issues turned into launching the investigation that led to the blockbuster 450-page report on digital marketplace competition — a process that included grilling the CEOs of the nation’s largest companies at committee hearing.
“The more I've learned about it over these years, the more urgent I believe action is. The more damaging, I think, allowing these technology companies that have monopoly power to continue to operate unchecked from any regulation and continue to grow their power and their market share is,” Cicilline said.
How Cicilline built an antitrust reform coalition
Although House GOP leaders aren’t showing interest in bringing the bills forward again, the Judiciary Committee’s markup in June 2021 brought together unlikely allies in the House.
The proposals advanced out of the committee with support — and opposition — from both sides of the aisle, placing lawmakers like Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) on the same side promoting the bills and Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) together on the opposing side.
Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who served as the top Republican on the antitrust subcommittee beside Cicilline, said that bipartisan nature was a key part of how he led the push.
“I think that we need more of David Cicillines in Congress — people who have strong feelings about their issues, but who are also willing to work across the aisle,” Buck told The Hill.
Buck was a leading Republican voice advocating for the antitrust reform bills. Along with him, Democrats found unlikely allies in Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Lance Gooden (R-Texas) amongst the handful of Republicans supportive of the effort.
In the Senate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and other supporters found a GOP ally in Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
Luchette said that bipartisan work was a cornerstone of how Cicilline approached his work in the House.
“I could go on probably for hours telling you about the times that I worked for him and saw him working with people who are seen as right-wing ideologues, people who are on Fox News all the time, people who give no quarter to the Democratic Party, and he would work effectively with them on issues,” Luchette said.
“At the end of the day, that's the way the system should work. It's not supposed to work with people just going to their corners and holding the line. You're supposed to be able to find common grounds and to the extent that they were able to do that, I think that was in large part because of the energy and effort that he poured into it,” Luchette added.
The bills were the result of a 16-month investigation into market dominance in the digital sector, which ultimately led to a series of bipartisan proposals aimed at reforming antitrust laws to tackle concerns critics say are posed by Amazon, Meta, Google and Apple.
Pushback to proposals was immediate and substantial
Because tech giants have denied using anticompetitive practices, the companies and the industry groups that back them pushed back strongly on the proposals, shoveling millions into lobbying and expensive opposition ad campaigns.
Much of that opposition was largely from groups like Chamber of Progress, NetChoice, and the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), which represent companies including Amazon, Google, Meta and Apple.
CCIA’s “Don’t Break What Works” campaign launched a series of ads targeting the proposals and arguing they would force companies to unwind services users enjoy or make companies charge users for previously free features.
California Democrats, especially those who represent the tech-heavy Bay Area districts, also pushed back on the proposals, arguing that they didn’t address the problems identified by the House investigation into digital marketplace competition in an effective way to serve the public.
Republicans fought hard against more antitrust regulation
Critical House Republicans, like Jordan, opposed the plans on the basis that the bills would give the Biden administration “more money.”
To get Buck on board, Cicilline held a field hearing on competition issues in Buck’s home state of Colorado in 2020.
The hearing featured executives from Tile, Sonos, Basecamp and the Boulder-based company PopSockets that testified over how tech giants were impacting their companies.
“I wanted to demonstrate to him, even though he was the ranking member, that I respected his role in this work, and I also wanted him to hear from Colorado business folks about the impact of these platforms, on their businesses, business people, and, we just developed a very strong working relationship,” Cicilline said.
Buck said after the hearing he became more interested and involved, and was able to develop a “trusting relationship” with Cicilline.
“Which during this timeframe is difficult. Obviously, David and I disagreed about the impeachment votes, and we disagreed about a lot of other very contentious issues,” Buck said.
Cicilline served as an impeachment manager for former President Trump’s second impeachment. Buck voted along with the majority of his party against both impeachments of Trump.
“But when it came to this, we both found common ground. And he was great if I went to my Republican colleagues and discussed a bill and they said, ‘Well, you know, you got to change this and one, two, and three,’" he said.
"I would go to David and get those things changed and I would go back and get Republican support. So it really was a process where he was willing to compromise a great deal to get the Republican support that we needed to get the bills passed in the House,” Buck said.
Cicilline said both lawmakers understood that the tech companies were trying to “desperately make this a partisan issue” and pit the two against each other.
“And we resisted that at every turn despite their best efforts,” Cicilline said.
What supporters accomplished — and hope to do next
Two of the more high profile proposals, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act and the Open App Markets Act, didn’t get floor votes in the House or Senate and failed to be added to end of the year omnibus bills despite a push from the bill’s sponsors and outside supporters.
The first bill aimed to limit dominant platforms from creating preferences for their own products and services on their platforms.
The second aimed to add regulations for dominant app stores. In the Senate, versions of the bills also advanced out of the Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support.
Lawmakers did, however, successfully get a package of less controversial antitrust reform measures, also part of the proposals spawned from the House investigation, passed.
The package aimed to boost federal and state antitrust enforcers’ power to give them a better shot at taking on powerful tech firms.
“I think for sure when the Democrats take the House back, this will remain a priority and I expect these laws will also make it to the president’s desk,” Cicilline said, of the other antitrust proposals.
Can Cicilline's legacy evolve into policy?
Democrats controlled the House, Senate and White House before the 2022 election, but the proposals failed to get floor votes in either chamber.
“It can often take multiple terms of Congress to build sufficient support to pass legislation. So we look forward to continuing to monitor in the Congress and hope to see concrete changes that come about to check Big Tech’s power,” said Morgan Harper, director of policy and advocacy at the American Economic Liberties Project, a nonprofit that supports antitrust and corporate accountability legislation.
As Cicilline steps down, it is not clear who will take the reins from him when he leaves.
He said Democrats who were sponsors of the proposals that came forward, like Jayapal, Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) and current House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) are the “likely champions” of the antitrust push in the next Congress.
Harper said the Rhode Island Democrats’ legacy is going to include “educating a generation of Congressional leaders to both understand the dangers of Big Tech and importantly the antitrust tools that Congress has to do something about it.”
“We really see Congressman Cicilline as a once-in-a-generation leader on antitrust, and in many ways the person Congress was waiting for to move this issue forward,” she said.
As Congress grapples with threats from new emerging technologies, such as the rapid rise of ChatGPT and the wave of rival generative AI products, Cicilline said it is “absolutely essential” that Congress “remain and get current on this technology.”
“I think one of the things that was a tremendous advantage at the big companies was that Congress, sort of let them do what they want to set back and allowed them to continue to grow and be free from any government oversight or regulation,” he said.
“I hope that was a lesson and that everyone will recognize that those around to make the jurisdiction need to really stay current with these developments, so that we won't be a decade behind the decision that needs to be enacted,” he added.