Jan 10, 2022 - Technology

Tech antitrust bills’ make or break moment

Illustration of the Capitol dome disappearing under the hands of a clock

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Lawmakers and lobbyists anticipate a major fight over antitrust bills meant to tame Big Tech, before the midterms put an unofficial end to the legislative effort.

Why it matters: The bills could remake how Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google operate and treat competitors — if they make it over the finish line.

  • Proponents say the bills could level the playing field for small businesses that increasingly rely on Big Tech, while critics argue they will jeopardize services consumers love.

What's happening: A number of bills that originated in a House Judiciary Committee package have bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress, and lawmakers want to move pieces forward as soon as possible.

  • The American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which would prohibit Big Tech companies from favoring their own services in an anticompetitive way, is backed by the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as well as antitrust subcommittee chairwoman Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
  • A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told Axios he is working with President Biden and colleagues, "on the best ways to ensure robust competition and hold big corporations, including big tech, accountable through legislation or other means."
  • "This year we will continue to build on the strong bipartisan momentum behind passing new laws to promote competition and establish rules of the road for the digital economy," Klobuchar told Axios.

Other bills under consideration include: The Platform Competition and Opportunity Act, which aims to make it more difficult for Big Tech companies to buy up competitors. And the Open App Markets Act, which aims to boost competition in app stores.

What they're saying: "I think the timeline, to be sure we get them done as soon as possible, but certainly before the summer break, is critical," Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), chair of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, told Axios. "We're at an important inflection point."

  • "There is a lot of urgency to get something done in this Congress. By the summer, people's focus will turn to the midterms," he said.
  • Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), ranking member of the antitrust subcommittee, told Axios: "The debate on these bills, the informing members of the advantages, the reasons for moving forward, that has to happen before the August recess." He said he received a dozen texts over the holidays from Republican members who want to learn more about the effort.

Between the lines: Lawmakers want to be home campaigning before the midterms and also aren't keen on bipartisanship just before voters head to the polls.

Meanwhile, if Republicans take control of Congress, it’s unlikely the Democrat-led bills will advance. Republicans will have their own legislative priorities.

  • House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has previously thrown cold water on the House antitrust effort.
  • When asked if his stance has changed, a McCarthy spokesperson pointed to a framework McCarthy released last June largely focused on alleged bias by tech platforms against conservative-leaning content.

The other side: Tech companies that would be subject to these bills remain opposed.

  • An Amazon spokesperson told Axios lawmakers are rushing through the process and dismissing concerns from companies in an attempt to get their colleagues on board without giving them time to fully review the bills.
  • One tech industry source told Axios there hasn’t yet been any negotiating between the biggest tech companies and Congressional offices over potential bill changes, and the question of why the bill only covers a small number of U.S. tech companies remains a sticking point.
  • A Senate Judiciary aide refuted that there have not been negotiations, saying companies were scared and resorting to misinformation.

The big picture: Democrats spent the first year of the Biden administration focused on key agenda items, including pandemic relief and the infrastructure package. In 2022, the Build Back Better spending bill and voting rights will be priorities for the administration.

  • A senior administration official told Axios the White House gave technical feedback on the antitrust bills last year when asked by members, and wants Congress to continue to develop the ideas.
  • "If the moment is right, and there's an opportunity, I think that there's a lot of interest in making progress in this space," the official told Axios.

This story has been updated with additional comments from a Congressional staffer.

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