The US House Judiciary Committee this week approved half a dozen major bipartisan antitrust bills aimed at clamping down on the growing power of Big Tech and its monopolization of some markets.
The panel, led by Jerry Nadler (D-NY), debated for nearly 30 hours on Wednesday and Thursday to advance the wide-sweeping six-bill package. The proposed laws includes all sorts of measures to prevent companies like Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and others from dominating their sectors of the technology industry.
There was likely plenty of lobbying and other wrangling going on in the back and foreground over the exact wording of the package. For instance, there was a concern by some lawmakers that Microsoft would end up avoiding certain provisions in the proposed acts that would otherwise hit Google and Apple. Tweaks were made – such as removing "mobile" from "mobile operating system" in the fine-print – to ensure no one was wriggling out.
After the bills were approved, Rep David Cicilline (D-RI), who leads the panel's subcommittee on antitrust, tweeted:
After 29 hours, and Big Tech’s best efforts, the House Judiciary Committee has passed all six bills of our agenda to build #AStrongerOnlineEconomy! Big win for consumers, workers, and small businesses!— David Cicilline (@davidcicilline) June 24, 2021
Here’s a quick overview of what was advanced by the committee to the next stage:
- The American Choice and Innovation Online Act [PDF] tackles gatekeepers that police competition on digital platforms. It prevents a company from imposing rules and regulations that unfairly disadvantage third parties also offering products on that company's platform or operating system. The bill is sponsored by Reps Cicilline (D-RI) and Lance Gooden (R-TX).
- The Platform Competition and Opportunity Act [PDF] puts the spotlight on acquisitions. Under the bill, dominant companies are not allowed to snap up competitors or purchase stocks and assets in competing businesses. While that would stop something like Facebook buying Instagram, there is a concern it may be a little too broad brush, and prevent things like a startup's innovative technology from reaching a mass market or audience via an acquisition by a well-resourced player. It was co-sponsored by Reps Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Ken Buck (R-CO).
- The third bill on the list, the Ending Platform Monopolies Act [PDF], was the most controversial and passed by a narrow 21-20 margin. It ensures corporations can't sell their own product lines on own platform unfairly. This is aimed at companies like Amazon that mine sales figures to create their own branded products, such as cheap-as-a-chips AmazonBasics gear, disadvantaging smaller businesses. It was backed by Representatives Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Lance Gooden (R-TX).
- The Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching or ACCESS Act [PDF] also passed. It ensures that platforms should be transparent about user data and allow third-party businesses to easily switch to other services at minimal cost. House Reps Mary Scanlon (D-PA) and Burgess Owens (R-UT) co-sponsored the bill.
- The State Antitrust Enforcement Venue Act [PDF] empowers state attorneys general in deciding the venue of antitrust lawsuits in federal courts. This is aimed at stopping tech titans shifting proceedings to courts that are perceived as friendlier or sympathetic to mega-corps, which also drives up the cost of litigation. Rep Ken Buck (R-CO) led this bill, which was cosponsored by Reps Cicilline, Dan Bishop (R-NC), Burgess Owens (R-Utah), and Joe Neguse (D-CO).
- Finally, the Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act [PDF] strengthens the ability for organizations like the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission to enforce antitrust laws by increasing the fees for $5bn+ merger deals to fund more investigations, as well as appropriating $670m for the duo's antitrust teams. The bill was co-sponsored by Reps Joe Neguse (D-CO) and Victoria Spartz (R-IN).
“The Committee’s bipartisan investigation into digital markets uncovered overwhelming evidence of anti-competitive conduct that has seriously impacted consumers and small businesses,” said committee chairman Jerry Nadler.
“I’m proud to be joining my colleagues, once again in a bipartisan fashion, to introduce a package of legislation that will restore competition online and level the playing field for innovators, entrepreneurs, and startups. Our actions today to reinvigorate antitrust enforcement will ensure that our laws can finally and effectively meet the challenges of our modern economy.”
- Big Tech critic Lina Khan confirmed as FTC chairwoman
- Ohio Attorney General asks courts to declare Google a public utility
- Amazon hit with antitrust lawsuit after DC AG says TTFN to price fixing
- Facebook faces competition enquiry on two fronts as EU and UK officials scrutinise its ad data
Although this is an added headache for Big Tech, its fight to kill off the bills isn’t yet over by a very long chalk. It’s a small victory for a House committee scrutinizing some of the world’s largest companies, though it's an uphill battle from here to see it all through to the law books.
All six bills will now face a vote on the House floor, and that hasn't even been scheduled yet. Then it's on to the Senate, where the chances of success become much more difficult due to aggressive lobbying efforts from Big Tech and a highly partisan atmosphere. ®