Meet Big Tech’s new foe – a congressman who fought City Hall
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Can the congressman who took on an entrenched machine politician in Rhode Island also stand up to Big Tech?
David Cicilline, the Rhode Island Democrat now leading a House antitrust investigation into the market dominance of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple, is about to find out. But he has experience going up against “enormously powerful, very well-financed, very well-connected” special interests, which is how he now terms the technology industry.
That description also fit an earlier Cicilline opponent, former Providence mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, a charismatic and seemingly indestructible politician who ran the city for more than two decades. Cicilline braved a run to unseat Cianci in 2002 at a time when the incumbent was fending off corruption charges but still intent on winning a seventh term. By that year’s end, Cicilline was headed to the mayor’s office, Cianci to federal prison, and the seeds were planted for a bitter political rivalry that would last until Cianci died in 2016.
“If you can take on Buddy Cianci, you can certainly take on Mark Zuckerberg,” said Darrell West, a former political science professor at Brown University in Providence who now directs the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation.
Cicilline is adept at social media and drives a Tesla, but until recently hasn’t been considered among the tech policy wonks in Congress. As a law student and lawyer, he didn’t spend much time studying the nation’s century-old antitrust laws, first used to target oil barons and railroad monopolies.
Yet for those who have followed his career, it fits into a trend of siding with the underdog. For Cicilline, the federal government’s lack of scrutiny as Google gobbled up its digital advertising competitors and Facebook acquired rivals like Instagram and WhatsApp has enabled the tech giants to corner their market, giving people little choice but to agree to terms of service that exploit their personal data.
“A monopoly’s good for nobody, especially for workers,” said J. Michael Downey, a president of a Rhode Island public sector union who is enthused about the congressman’s latest high-profile cause. “When he takes someone on, I’ve watched him do good things with it.”
Cicilline may be better known by some younger Americans for his championing of LGBT rights, and by older ones for his pithy attacks on President Donald Trump during regular cable appearances. He pushed early for an impeachment inquiry, bucking Speaker Nancy Pelosi despite being part of her leadership team.
Early on, Cicilline followed his father, a Mafia lawyer, into criminal defense work. He got experiences in taking on the “imbalance of power,” he said, by suing police for misconduct. He later served as a state representative before taking aim at Cianci, who had already served two long stretches as mayor. (The first ended after Cianci attacked his estranged wife’s alleged lover with a lit cigarette and a fireplace log.)
Cicilline pitched himself as an anti-corruption reformer. At one early fundraiser, Cicilline said Cianci’s supporters jotted down the license plate numbers of attendees, then used the information to identify and intimidate them.
“He didn’t take well to people challenging him,” Cicilline told The Associated Press in an interview. He said the sitting mayor also tried to dig up dirt about his legal career.
Cianci later called Cicilline’s mayoral bid a “political suicide mission” that succeeded only because a racketeering conviction forced Cianci out of office before the election. Cicilline coasted to victory and served eight years as mayor before being elected to Congress in 2010.
Cianci spent more than four years in federal prison, then returned to Providence as a radio talk show host.
“I’m not a good enemy to have,” Cianci wrote in his 2011 autobiography, “Politics and Pasta,” in which he took credit for tarnishing Cicilline’s reputation with on-air attacks. “But what could Cicilline do to me? Put me in prison? Been there, done that, and I brought home the T-shirt.”
Silicon Valley’s tech giants might also not make good enemies. For now, Cicilline is seeking their cooperation and emphasizes that the investigation is “not a prosecution.” But he can also wield subpoena power should that approach fail.
Cicilline now runs the Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, a typically sleepy body that he aims to beef up. Its investigation will explore whether these online platforms are stifling competition, favoring their own services or threatening the democratic process by virtue of their control over how people get information.
Given the popularity of these tech services, Cicilline said it’s also important to show Americans “why this misuse of their data, the exclusion of rivals, why the promotion of one product over another without them knowing about it, matters.”
Tech companies so far are expressing their willingness to help inform the probe, but some of their proxies complain that Cicilline’s approach looks more like a show trial.
“For Cicilline and everybody else in that camp, it’s clear these companies are guilty,” said Rob Atkinson, president of the industry-backed Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, and a veteran of Rhode Island politics. “The only real question for them is what to do about it.”
Cicilline’s evolution on unchecked monopoly power followed the lead of another New England Democrat, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. In mid-2016, Warren accused Google, Apple and Amazon of using their online platforms to snuff out competition, threatening not just their competitors but democracy.
She has since rolled out a plan to break up the companies. Cicilline calls that a “last resort.”
In 2017, Cicilline began dabbling in antitrust policy as the ranking Democrat on the GOP-run antitrust subcommittee and pushed unsuccessfully for a hearing on how Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods would affect both consumers and workers. He consulted with groups such as the Open Markets Institute, a think tank that advocates breaking up monopolies.
This year, Cicilline hired Lina Khan, a top attorney at Open Markets, to serve as the subcommittee’s chief counsel. She declined comment for this story.
Cicilline and his Republican colleagues on the subcommittee are standing up to “the most powerful corporations we’ve seen in the world for at least 100 years,” said Barry Lynn, director of the Open Markets Institute.
West, the Brookings scholar, said Cicilline’s unlikely leadership on this cause — as the representative of a tiny state without a significant tech sector — could work to his advantage as the wealthy tech companies mobilize their allies.
“He’s a pretty free agent on this type of topic,” West said.