WASHINGTON – House Democrats and Republicans introduced a sweeping series of bills on Friday intended to check the power of Silicon Valley giants, marking a new chapter in their years-long efforts to hold tech companies accountable.
The rare cooperation in a bitterly divided Congress underscores the mounting bipartisan interest in overhauling federal competition laws to address long-running allegations that Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google have engaged in monopoly-style tactics.
The measures would outlaw some of the common ways tech companies allegedly solidified their digital dominance and, in the most severe instances, force them to sell off lines of business that represent a conflict of interest.
The bills are based on recommendations that the House’s top antitrust panel put forth following a 16-month bipartisan investigation into the tech giants.
If passed, they would mark a historic overhaul of decades-old competition laws, which were first implemented a century ago to take on railroad, oil and steel magnates.
“Right now, unregulated tech monopolies have too much power over our economy,” Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., the chair of the House antitrust panel, said in a statement. “They are in a unique position to pick winners and losers, destroy small businesses, raise prices on consumers, and put folks out of work. Our agenda will level the playing field and ensure the wealthiest, most powerful tech monopolies play by the same rules as the rest of us.”
The most controversial of the bills, the Ending Platform Monopolies Act, would make it illegal for major tech platform to operate another line of business that creates a conflict of interest.
That could spell trouble for Amazon, which operates a major e-commerce marketplace but also competes in it as a seller of many products itself. House investigators concluded last year that Amazon was incentivized “to exploit its access to competing sellers’ data and information.” (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The legislation could also potentially affect Google, which operates its own video-streaming service, YouTube, as well as a search engine that ranks the results of videos from around the Internet.
The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., whose state is home to Amazon, and Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Texas.
The American Innovation and Choice Online Act, co-sponsored by Cicilline and Gooden, would prohibit tech giants from giving their own products and services preference over rivals, an issue that congressional investigators found smaller competitors raised again and again as they probed the tech giants.
That could have implications across the industry, especially as lawmakers and courts examine allegations that Apple has abused its control of iPhone and iPad operating systems to harm competition.
Another bill, the Platform Competition and Opportunity Act, would prohibit tech magnates from snapping up rising competitors. The House investigation exposed Facebook emails, memos and other once-secret company records that showed that the social network sought to acquire “its competitive threats to maintain and expand its dominance.” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and Rep. Ken Buck, Colo., the top Republican on the House antitrust panel, co-sponsored that measure.
The package also includes two bills that are similar to proposals already put forth in the Senate.
The Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act, sponsored by Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., and Rep. Victoria Spartz, R-Ind., would update filing fees to ensure there’s more funding for the country’s top antitrust enforcers, the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice.
The Senate this week passed similar legislation as part of a broader bill to address U.S. competitiveness with China.
Reps. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa., and Burgess Owens, R-Utah, are sponsoring a bill that aims to make it easier for people to use different tech services together, or move their data to a rival service.
The Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching Act is similar to interoperability legislation introduced by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., in the last Congress.
Tech companies are likely to fight the legislation, which would result in seismic changes for their current business practices.
Before they were even introduced, Netchoice, which represents Amazon, Google, Facebook and other tech companies, said the measures would “kneecap” American companies and undermine American innovation amid increasing concerns about the competitive threat posed by China.
“At the same time Congress is looking to boost American innovation and cybersecurity, lawmakers should not pass legislation that would cede ground to foreign competitors and open up American data to dangerous and untrustworthy actors,” Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel at NetChoice, said in a statement.
Though Republicans and Democrats are working together on the legislation, they have diverging motivations for regulating the tech giants. Democrats have long pushed for greater reforms to antitrust law to address growing economic concentration.
Republicans meanwhile have focused more narrowly on the tech industry, especially as they raise concerns that the tech giants have stifled their voices online. The tech companies have denied those claims, but Buck alluded to them in his statement of support for the bills, saying the companies abused their dominance to “censor speech.”
“This legislation breaks up Big Tech’s monopoly power to control what Americans see and say online, and fosters an online market that encourages innovation and provides American small businesses with a fair playing field,” he said in the statement. “Doing nothing is not an option, we just act now.”
The House lawmakers are taking a different approach than the Senate, where Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has introduced sweeping legislation that she says aims to address competition concerns throughout the economy, not just in Silicon Valley. Some consumer advocates welcome both approaches.
“We do need broad antitrust reforms that will address competition across economy, and we need specific laws and rules focused on Big Tech,” said Charlotte Slaiman, competition policy counsel at the consumer group Public Knowledge.
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