R.I.’s David Cicilline uses his House perch to take on Google and Facebook
WASHINGTON — It was early 2017, and Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island was in the middle of his own tech convergence.
He had just become the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel. And the politically ambitious former Providence mayor had taken a key role in developing the economic message the House Democrats would use to regain the chamber’s majority in the 2018 midterms.
The two roles — political strategist and antitrust point person — led to a confluence that now is reverberating from Washington to Silicon Valley. He is at the center of the emerging debate on Capitol Hill: Should Facebook, Google, and other technology giants be broken up?
His early conclusion: The tech giants have grown too powerful. As the new chairman of the antitrust subcommittee, Cicilline has launched a series of high-profile hearings — the most significant congressional probe of its kind in decades — to figure out how to level the digital market playing field.
“We have seen tremendous use of power by these dominant technology platforms, and we have seen some real harm done to people in terms of privacy, in terms of issues with data, in terms of anticompetitive behaviors that are hurting consumers and putting small entrepreneurs out of business,” he said.
His new role as the House’s big-tech inquisitor dovetails with his history of fighting to protect people in a system he views as rigged against them. It also provides a platform to further elevate Cicilline’s rising profile after his frequent TV appearances speaking out on another major Judiciary Committee issue by calling for impeachment proceedings against President Trump.
Cicilline, 58, discovered politics at 15, when he asked his parents to drop him off at Town Council meetings in Narragansett, and while still in high school he helped defeat a developer’s efforts to encroach on Black Point wildlife grounds in Rhode Island.
At Brown University in the 1980s, he formed a branch of the College Democrats with his classmate John F. Kennedy Jr.
After law school, Cicilline became a public defender in Washington, D.C.’s juvenile justice division, defending teens from impoverished neighborhoods. He later returned to Rhode Island to run for public office to try to accomplish more for minors in the criminal justice system by changing policy.
After losing a state Senate race in 1992, he won a seat in the Rhode Island House of Representatives in 1994. Then in 2002, he ran for Providence mayor against the popular and controversial incumbent Vincent Cianci.
Cianci was forced to resign amid racketeering charges and Cicilline was elected in a landslide. He would go on to become the first openly gay member of the House leadership after being elected to Congress in 2010.
“The key thing with him is always wanting to promote economic opportunity and fair play, and as a mayor he was a fighter for working-class people,” said Darrell West, who taught Cicilline at Brown and now is director of governance at the Brookings Institution think tank. “I can see those principles flowing as part of his tech work now.”
Cicilline originally wasn’t interested in becoming the lead Democrat on the Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel. But the committee’s top Democrat, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, convinced him by saying it was a new opportunity that “could stretch his mind,” Cicilline said.
That led Cicilline to his convergence. As he helped craft the House Democrats’ agenda centered on an economy they said was not working for average Americans, he was learning about antitrust laws designed to promote competition and innovation while protecting workers and consumers.
“That was really failing in a significant way,” Cicilline said of government antitrust efforts.
After he gained the subcommittee chairmanship this year with Democrats in the majority, his subcommittee’s first probe centered on health care consolidation and led to legislation to drive down the cost of generic drugs that passed the House.
Now, Cicilline has turned his attention toward technology giants as Facebook and Google have amassed more than 60 percent of the online ad market.
In a Globe opinion article in March, he said he had asked the Federal Trade Commission to open an antitrust investigation into Facebook as it had acquired more than 75 companies, including Instagram and WhatsApp.
Cicilline opened his subcommittee’s probe last month with a look into the ways such tech platforms are dictating the terms for local publishers and newspapers. Witnesses and subcommittee members said tech companies had hurt some publishers amid already declining sales revenue by buying up the ad market and distorting what the public shares and consumes.
“We cannot have a democracy without a free and diverse press,” Cicilline said from his chairman’s perch. “Our country will not survive if we do not have shared facts, if corruption is not exposed and rooted out at all levels of government, and if power is not held to account.”
The second of several expected hearings will take place Tuesday and will center on how tech mergers have had an impact on new businesses and startups.
The bipartisan panel’s findings could provide the foundation for legislation to update antitrust laws, spur new federal rules, and put pressure on enforcement agencies to pursue their own investigations. At the least, hearings and witness testimony could expose bad practices, pushing companies to own up to the public, antitrust lawyers and legal experts said.
Tech companies are under scrutiny from Democrats and Republicans.
In her run for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has called for breaking up tech giants, and Trump has accused social media platforms of colluding with Democrats against him, though he hasn’t offered evidence.
Congress has not intervened in a major way to revise what is prohibited under antitrust law since 1950, while courts have exhibited leniency in allowing mergers, and antitrust enforcement efforts have lagged.
The last major US government antitrust suit against a tech company occurred when the Justice Department sued Microsoft in 1998.
Lawyers and legal analysts at the time debated whether the antitrust statutes could be applied to a complex and fast-evolving tech market. But the Microsoft case, in which a settlement ultimately imposed restrictions on the computer software giant, proved “antitrust law was adaptable,” said Andrew Gavil, a professor at the Howard University School of Law.
Now the FTC and the Justice Department are reportedly paving the way for antitrust investigations against Facebook and Google, respectively. And a growing number of researchers and experts argue that greater antitrust enforcement could protect competition and consumers and more equitably spread the benefits of innovation.
“It is perfectly possible to enforce the law without having tech platforms disappear,” said Fiona Scott Morton, an economics professor at the Yale School of Management who is expected to testify on Tuesday.
Cicilline said the number of entrepreneurs and company executives who have come forward to share their competition concerns since his probe began has strengthened his resolve to push forward.
“It has really underscored for me how broken this market is, how broken the Internet is, and that we are in a very serious monopoly moment,” he said. “And in order to get the markets working right and protect and promote competition, we need to take action.”