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Senator Cory Booker thinks the U.S. government should keep an eye on the size of Amazon, Google and other tech giants

He talks about the need for antitrust enforcement in a coming episode of Recode Decode.

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U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Big tech is a big concern for Cory Booker.

A longtime Silicon Valley ally, the New Jersey Democrat told me — in an upcoming episode of our Recode Decode podcast — that the U.S. government needs to apply a much more critical eye to large companies that aspire to become even larger, whether it’s Amazon’s new bid to buy Whole Foods, Google’s ever-growing footprint or a raft of cable and telecom mergers pending U.S. approval.

“This consolidation that’s happening all over the country is not a positive trend,” said Booker, a powerful lawmaker who sits on a key congressional committee overseeing the tech and telecom industries — and a potential 2020 presidential contender.

But Booker charged that the Trump administration — if not Republicans generally — have been “really slacking in terms of asserting consumer protections,” and he even described a number of key federal agency leaders who oversee issues like antitrust as “dangerous.”

To start, one of Booker’s targets is Amazon: The senator plans to team up with his fellow lawmakers in the Congressional Black Caucus to push for greater scrutiny of the e-commerce giant’s proposed merger with Whole Foods. During the interview, Booker previewed to Recode he had signed a letter — which isn’t yet finished or filed with the Justice Department — raising concerns with the $14 billion deal.

Booker said he doubted the “willingness” of Attorney General Jeff Sessions — against whom he testified for the DOJ’s top job — to shine a harsh light on Amazon’s plans. Still, the Democratic senator explained he’s particularly fearful that the company’s tie-up with Whole Foods might adversely affect majority-black communities, which Booker said are lacking in options for low-cost, healthy, easy-to-access groceries.

“We’re having a hard enough time getting supermarkets to move into urban communities, to give people choice, to give people price competitiveness, so that actually they’re paying for affordable groceries,” the senator said. “I worry about grocery consolidation, I worry about the jobs that many of these grocery stores create, and so I am skeptical of this particular merger, highly skeptical of it, and I believe this consolidation as well as other consolidations, we should be holding a far higher bar than we are when we approve these.”

To some antitrust experts, the question is whether U.S. competition law is sufficient to handle a company of Amazon’s size and scope. To Booker, however, the tech industry’s top companies have continued to grow in size because federal agency leaders just haven’t taken advantage of the tools at their disposal. The senator directed some of his ire at the likes of Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and Maureen Ohlhausen, the acting chairman of the Federal Trade Commission.

“I think these are extremely dangerous people in positions right now that are going to do nothing but inflame the economic injustices we’re already seeing in our country, giving more power to corporate consolidation, to corporations as a whole, and less power to Americans,” he said in response to questions about their record.

Absent strong U.S. regulation, however, the New Jersey Democrat said other countries had become better consumer-protection cops. That appears to include the European Union, which announced in June a record $2.7 billion fine against Google on grounds it harmed customers and rivals through prioritizing its shopping search results over others.

Asked about that review, Booker stressed the United States has “regulatory agencies that just aren’t doing their jobs.”

Pressed then if the U.S. government should take its own look at Google — an investigation it closed in 2013 — Booker told Recode: “I think the U.S. government absolutely should take a look at Google.”

And when asked again if that should involve an antitrust inquiry, Booker chose his words carefully: “I think the U.S. government should be far more active in antitrust actions, because when they have taken actions, it’s often created collateral benefits to society.” He cited federal probes into Microsoft and the breakup of AT&T as examples of probes that have resulted in “many benefits to consumers and to innovation.”

“We have regulatory agencies that just aren’t doing their jobs,” Booker said during the interview. “And you see this with big banks, you see this with the entire crisis we just came through. What’s amazing to me is that we haven’t learned the lessons and we’re not protecting consumers.”

Look for more from our wide-ranging conversation about politics and technology soon. You can listen to the Recode Decode podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Spotify, TuneIn, Stitcher and SoundCloud.

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