- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2022

A bill that would blunt Apple and Google’s alleged monopoly power received the overwhelming approval of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, moving a crackdown on the companies’ app stores toward final consideration by the full chamber.

The Open App Markets Act that would impose rules on Apple and Google’s app stores advanced through committee by a 21-1 vote. Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, cast the only dissenting vote, though other senators voiced concerns that the bill still needs work.

The bill would prevent platforms with more than 50 million users, notably Apple and Google, from requiring app developers to use a payment system controlled by the Big Tech behemoths. It would also prevent the tech companies from giving developers less favorable terms and conditions if they shop around for better pricing arrangements.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, said passing the proposal would mean cheaper prices for consumers, more innovation and better products, plus more safeguards by opening the “walled garden” controlled by Big Tech.

Mr. Blumenthal, who previously compared social media platforms to the tobacco industry, this time painted Apple and Google as akin to railroad monopolies of the 1900s.

“Today, the simple, stark fact is that Google and Apple own the rails. They own the rails of the app economy much as the railroad companies did at the start of the last century,” Mr. Blumenthal said at a Judiciary Committee meeting on the bill. “It’s a market that is worth approximately 100 billion dollars per year and the gatekeepers’ dominance allows them to dictate the terms of the market.”

Apple and Google have argued against antitrust legislation affecting their business. They are also simultaneously fighting legal disputes and other countries’ scrutiny of their business practices. Video game and software developer Epic Games’ lawsuit against Apple over alleged antitrust violations through its app store policies is ongoing and it looks to be headed to the federal court of appeals.

The European Union and the U.K. are among the foreign bodies that have mounted investigations against Apple.

Google has faced similar scrutiny, with attorneys general from three states and the District, last week announcing lawsuits against Google over allegations that the company misled people about how it tracked their location.

Apple wrote to the Judiciary Committee this week in opposition to the Open App Markets Act. Timothy Powderly, Apple senior director of government affairs in the Americas, wrote that the bill would harm consumer privacy and security and hurt consumer welfare and competition. 

“We are deeply concerned that the legislation, unless amended, would make it easier for big social media platforms to avoid the pro-consumer practices of Apple’s App Store, and allow them to continue business as usual,” Mr. Powderly said in the letter. “It does so by mandating that Apple allow the sideloading of apps and app stores that need not comply with the App Store’s pro-consumer privacy protections.”

The Washington Times obtained a copy of the letter.

Apple and Google have some influential allies in their battle with senators over the antitrust legislation aiming at their app stores. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is in Apple and Google’s corner and urged the Judiciary Committee to slow down.

Mr. Cornyn made a similar argument during Thursday’s meeting.

“I worry that this legislation, though intended to stop abuses, will lead to a situation where consumers are simply unable to protect their personal data or keep malware off of their devices,” Mr. Cornyn said. “I want to get these questions answered, which is why I wish we had had an opportunity for a full committee hearing.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat, accused him of doing Big Tech’s bidding.

“I’m looking at some of your bills, Senator Cornyn, involving prescription drugs, a huge part of our economy, that have gone through without any hearing at all,” Ms. Klobuchar said. “I find this just another argument by the tech companies, another way to delay. They’ve delayed successfully for decades, which is why we haven’t done anything.”

Republicans failed in their attempts to tack on measures to address other concerns such as alleged political censorship online. Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, raised the issue of Apple and Google booting the social media platform Parler from their platforms last year and offered an amendment to stop what he called discrimination by modern-day oligarchs.

“This amendment provides simply a neutral standard that you cannot discriminate against an app, if you’re a monopolist, based on either political views or religious faith,” Mr. Cruz said.

Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin, Illinois Democrat, opposed Mr. Cruz’s amendment because it was getting into “tricky territory.”

“I don’t believe incitement to violence is protected political speech nor do I believe antisemitic hate speech is protected political speech, that’s my interpretation,” Mr. Durbin said. “And I think if we are opening those possibilities we’re in for a much different debate.”

So far, the tech legislation focused on antitrust issues has more momentum than those focused on censorship. The Judiciary Committee in the last month advanced two antitrust bills that would hammer Apple and Google.

The American Innovation and Choice Online Act advanced in January. It would block tech companies like Apple and Google from preferencing their products on their platforms. The Open App Markets Act pushed forward on Thursday was co-sponsored by five Democrats and six Republicans.

• Ryan Lovelace can be reached at rlovelace@washingtontimes.com.

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