Jan 20, 2022 - Technology

Big Tech lobbies hard against looming antitrust bill

Illustration of a pointing finger cursor pointing at the Capitol dome

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Big Tech CEOs, including Apple's Tim Cook and Google's Sundar Pichai, have been jawboning lawmakers as a Senate committee takes up a key antitrust bill Thursday.

Why it matters: The bill prompting this lobbying frenzy could upend how tech's giants do business, and tech's critics see this as a "now or never" moment for Congress to check the industry's power.

  • Direct involvement by tech executives shows real concern that these bills could become law.

Driving the news: The Senate Judiciary committee is set to mark up the American Innovation and Choice Online Act today and another bill focusing on app stores, the Open App Markets Act, within weeks.

  • The American Innovation and Choice Online Act is positioned to prohibit Big Tech companies from favoring their own services in an anti-competitive way.
  • Apple and Google came out strongly against the bill Tuesday, with both companies saying it would kill privacy and security features users love.

The intrigue: Cook and Pichai have reached out to lawmakers since late last year, sources tell Axios.

  • Judiciary Committee member Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) recently met with Cook and Pichai, an aide confirmed to Axios.

Yes, but: The bill's backers on both sides of the aisle seem unfazed by the Big Tech outreach.

  • "They’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars, dispatching CEOs and it’s all doomed," Garrett Ventry, a former staffer to House antitrust subcommittee ranking member Ken Buck (R-Colo.), told Axios. "It shows a shift in Big Tech's disintegrating influence on Capitol Hill."
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), leader of the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, called Apple's argument against the bill a misrepresentation that "won’t change reality."
  • However, criticism from tech that the bill could jeopardize services and exclude companies like ByteDance’s TikTok prompted tweaks to the bill ahead of today’s markup, Axios learned.

The big picture: Anyone with skin in the game is geared up for battle. Multiple groups aligned with Big Tech have launched local polling initiatives and seven-figure digital and TV ad buys in an attempt to drive home their message.

  • Chamber of Progress, a Big Tech defense group, exclusively shared polling with Axios about how the topic of tech antitrust is resonating with voters.
  • That polling, conducted by firm Normington Petts, surveyed about 40 registered voters in each of 20 battleground congressional districts last November. It found that Democrats and independents do not broadly prioritize tech as a policy issue, and that few battleground voters (26%) want "aggressive government intervention."
  • App developers and small e-commerce groups, most of which get funding from Big Tech companies, are also urging Congressional leaders to oppose the bill, according to a letter exclusively shared with Axios.

The other side: Anti-Big Tech groups are also swarming.

  • The Tech Oversight Project, a new group founded by former Democratic campaign staffers and funded partly by the Omidyar Network, is planning campaign-style, rapid-response tactics to fire back at Big Tech arguments about antitrust bills.
  • Additionally, dozens of small and medium tech companies, including Yelp, Sonos and DuckDuckGo, wrote to Senate Judiciary leaders in support of the bill on Tuesday, arguing dominant tech company behavior prevents "companies like us from competing on the merits."

Meanwhile, some of Big Tech's most vocal critics, including Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman and Sonos CEO Patrick Spence, raised their complaints at the White House during a meeting with senior advisers, including deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed.

  • The White House officials said they "look forward to working with Congress to make bipartisan progress on the issue," according to a readout.
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