Oct 14, 2022 - Technology

How Democrats' big plans for Big Tech shrank to tiny steps

Illustration of a donkey standing in a large donkey hoof print.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Democrats talked a big game about reining in Big Tech, but after nearly two years of controlling the agenda in Washington, they've got little to show for it.

Why it matters: Pledges to tackle data surveillance practices, harm to children's mental health and tech giants' power over wide swaths of the economy haven't yet translated into passing new laws, and the clock is running out.

State of play: The remaining days for legislative action are winding down for this Congress as midterm elections approach, with lawmakers already planning a packed schedule for the lame-duck session to fund the government and consider proposals on marriage equality and election reform.

  • That leaves little time for tech policy bills, even those with some bipartisan support, such as antitrust and privacy measures.

What happened: High-profile bills that would heap new regulations on the tech industry have advanced, but they've yet to cross the finish line into law. Here's where Congress stands on some of the major issues in the sector.

1. Antitrust: The House Judiciary Committee passed a package of bills that would alter how Amazon, Apple, Google and Meta operate after a marathon markup in June 2021, and the Senate Judiciary Committee passed some similar measures earlier this year.

  • But despite a pressure campaign from supporters for a Senate floor vote before the summer recess, the most ambitious antitrust proposals have stalled.
  • Meanwhile, the House passed a bill in September that will raise filing fees for large mergers, using the proceeds to fund antitrust enforcement efforts. It also passed another bill that will help state attorneys general bring antitrust cases in the venue of their choice.

2. Privacy — Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Energy & Commerce Committee authored a federal privacy bill that passed out of their committee by a bipartisan vote in July.

  • The American Data and Privacy Protection Act would require companies to minimize the amount of personal information they collect from consumers, among other requirements.
  • But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) voiced reservations about the bill's potential to limit her home state's privacy law.

3. Children's online safety — Revelations from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen about social media's negative effects on children spurred congressional hearings as well as legislation aimed at forcing companies to better protect the interests of children online.

  • The Kids Online Safety Act from Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) would require platforms to prevent and mitigate specific harms, including the promotion of self-harm, suicide, eating disorders and substance abuse.
  • The bill advanced from the Senate Commerce Committee in July, as did a children's privacy bill, but neither have companion legislation in the House.

Between the lines: Even bipartisan support in a 50-50 Senate wasn't enough to speed these bills to passage.

  • That's in part because the bills need to clear a 60-vote filibuster threshold to become law, exacerbating tensions between Democrats who favor stricter rules and Republicans who have more pro-business philosophies.

Yes, but: Democrats and Republicans did come together to pass new laws with major implications for the tech sector.

  • President Biden signed into law a $280 billion package meant to boost the domestic chip-making industry and scientific research.
  • In fall 2021, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which included $65 billion to improve high-speed internet access and affordability.

What they're saying: Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), chairman of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, said antitrust bills meant to regulate app stores and ban companies like Amazon from favoring their own products in an anticompetitive way are "wildly popular with voters."

  • "There has been no tech competition legislation passed since the dawn of the internet because gatekeeper platforms will stop at nothing to maintain their market power," Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), lead sponsor of the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, told Axios in a statement.
  • Democrats are proud of the progress they've made — "especially in an equally divided Senate" — on broadband funding, investing in scientific research and in confirming Biden's tech nominees, including Federal Trade Commission chair Lina Khan and commissioner Alvaro Bedoya, a spokesperson for Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash), chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee, told Axios.
  • House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) is continuing to "build momentum" for the data privacy bill, and "hopes to see it signed into law before the end of the year” a spokesperson told Axios.

What's next: Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned there will be an "extremely busy" agenda in the lame-duck session, with the Senate also set to take up must-pass defense funding legislation this month.

The bottom line: Tech regulation lost out to COVID, the economy and a massive climate, health and tax spending package for much of this Congress.

What's next: If Republicans take control of Congress, their natural antipathy toward new market restrictions could prove to be an even bigger barrier to tech regulation.

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