Big Tech’s most ardent critics have gained momentum in pursuit of an antitrust overhaul to curb the power of companies such as Amazon and Google that have become integral to the everyday lives of millions of Americans.
The view that the tech giants are monopolies has united Big Tech’s bipartisan detractors, who say Congress has an uncommon moment to deal a lasting blow. The most viable in the pipeline is the American Innovation and Choice Online Act.
The bill’s supporters say it would make measured and necessary changes to antitrust laws to combat Big Tech. The tech companies and their allies in Congress say Americans rely on and love the products and warn that the legislation would destroy them.
The legislation takes direct aim at Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook, which now operates as Meta, by seeking to prevent the companies from giving preference to their products on their platforms to the detriment of competitors.
Under the legislation, online platforms with more than 50 million monthly active users or 100,000 U.S.-based monthly active users would be blocked from putting their products and services ahead of different businesses if it materially harms competition. Antitrust enforcers from the Federal Trade Commission, the Justice Department and the states would have authority to enforce the law.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat, has shepherded the bill alongside Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican. They revised the legislation in June in hopes of getting it passed this summer.
Rep. David Cicilline, Rhode Island Democrat, and Rep. Ken Buck, Colorado Republican, have stewarded companion legislation in the House.
Ms. Klobuchar said the bill is not designed to break up the companies or ban mergers.
“All they have to do is treat people fairly,” Ms. Klobuchar said last week on the Senate floor. “The way our bill works, [if] they do that, they stay out of trouble. They don’t do it, Justice Department, FTC, state AGs can look at doing something about it.”
Ms. Klobuchar said Amazon is unfair to showcase its products over competitors’ products on its website.
Amazon Vice President Brian Huseman wrote that the bill would jeopardize his company’s ability to keep down prices and offer a wide selection of products.
“Sen. Klobuchar’s vaguely worded bill would mandate that Amazon allow other logistics providers to fulfill Prime orders,” he wrote on Amazon’s website. “Such a mandate would make it difficult, and potentially impossible in practice, for Amazon and our selling partners to offer products with Prime’s free two-day shipping (let alone one-day).”
Ms. Klobuchar has accused Amazon of making misleading claims and urged swift action to pass the bill over Big Tech objections.
The chance of congressional votes on major antitrust legislation against Big Tech before the August recess was jeopardized when Democratic leadership prioritized other business and questions about Senate support lingered.
Mr. Buck pushed for votes on the bill in June. Ms. Klobuchar called for votes before August. In comments to the New York Post, Mr. Grassley signaled last month that he was open to waiting until this fall, if necessary. Ms. Klobuchar’s office did not answer whether her anticipated timeline for the legislation had shifted toward autumn and pointed to her push for an immediate vote.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, told Punchbowl News in July that he supported the legislation but intended to wait and see whether it had the 60 votes necessary to survive in the upper chamber. The legislation did not appear to have that many votes.
Four Democratic senators raised concerns in June. Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Ron Wyden of Oregon expressed fear that the bill would “supercharge harmful content online” by hindering content moderation practices that censor people’s speech.
Some Republicans also cast doubt on the legislation. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah questioned the wisdom of the bill as it advanced through the Judiciary Committee in January.
A coalition of conservative advocacy groups led by the Internet Accountability Project urged the Senate in July to pass the bill immediately.
“Big tech companies have effectively amassed enough power to transcend marketplace consequences,” the coalition said in a letter to senators. “Never before in our country’s modern history have so few people wielded such immense power over the dissemination of information, or had the ability to silence their political or ideological opponents.”
The bill also has been caught up in power plays by the internet giants’ rival tech companies.
Yelp general counsel Aaron Schur wrote in support of the bill in a University of Chicago publication in July. Yelp, the crowdsourced business review site, is a competitor of Google and a witness in the Justice Department’s antitrust case against Google.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Mark Jamison told Mr. Schur that the bill hamstrings tech titans to benefit companies like Yelp. Mr. Jamison previously consulted for Google.
If the U.S. government does not break up Big Tech, its Chinese competition may deliver a deadly blow, particularly via the popular video-based platform TikTok.
Facebook posted its first-ever year-over-year revenue decline in 2022’s second quarter, marking an unprecedented three straight quarters of shrinking profits, according to MarketWatch.
TikTok surpassed Facebook and Instagram in users’ time spent scrolling on their platforms in 2020, according to market research company Insider Intelligence. Facebook has made plans to shutter or reevaluate several products, including its newsletter service Bulletin and how it pays news publishers via Facebook News.
Facebook is shifting resources toward products catering to TikTok’s creative audience and facing the prospect of a congressional crackdown. Still, its shift from social media toward a virtual reality “metaverse” business may not escape government regulation.
• Ryan Lovelace can be reached at email@example.com.
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