WASHINGTON – House lawmakers on Friday put extensive antitrust laws in place aimed at limiting the power of big tech and preventing corporate consolidation. If passed, the bills would be the most ambitious update of monopoly laws in decades.
The bills – five in total – are aimed directly at Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google and their influence on online trade, information and entertainment. The proposals would make it easier to dissolve companies that have used their dominance in one area to assert themselves in another, create new barriers to taking on emerging competitors, and provide regulators with more funding for police companies.
Legislation could reshape the way companies work. For example, Facebook and Google could raise the bar to prove that mergers aren’t anti-competitive. Amazon could face closer scrutiny when selling its own branded products like toilet paper and clothing. Apple could have a harder time tapping into new business areas advertised in its app store.
“Right now, unregulated technology monopolies have too much power over our economy. You are in a unique position to select winners and losers, destroy small businesses, raise consumer prices and put people out of work, “said David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island and chairman of the Antitrust Subcommittee. “Our agenda will level the playing field and ensure that the richest and most powerful technology monopolies play by the same rules as the rest of us.”
Adopting the bipartisan-backed bill is the most aggressive challenge yet, from Capitol Hill to Silicon Valley tech giants who have thrived for years without regulation or much reluctance to expand their businesses. Last year, after a 16-month investigation, the Antitrust Subcommittee released a damning report on the industry that found that Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google exhibited a variety of monopolistic behaviors. The proposals published on Friday attempt to address the concerns raised in the report.
In the past decade, dozens of privacy, language liability, and child online safety laws have failed. But efforts to curb the dominance of the largest tech companies have found widespread support in recent years. The Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission have accused Google and Facebook of anticompetitive practices during the Trump administration and filed lawsuits that are expected to last for years. Democrats and Republicans point to the dominance of a handful of firms as a major contributor to the spread of disinformation, inequality in work and wages, and arbitrary rules for speech on the Internet.
Tech giants face similar challenges around the world, including antitrust investigations in Europe and new laws in Australia and India to curtail their power.
“These are exactly the new laws we need to really address the problem of gatekeeper power from dominant digital platforms,” said Charlotte Slaiman, competition director of Public Knowledge, a public interest group. “Big tech companies have so many powerful tools to protect their monopolies. These bills would give the antitrust authorities some more powerful tools to open up digital platform markets to competition. “
The bills resulted in a showdown with the powerful armed forces of influence in the tech industry. The industry has gathered the largest group of lobbyists in Washington over the past decade, and the companies sponsor think tanks, fund academic papers, and employ top antitrust law firms to defend their businesses.
Some of the proposals are likely to find broad support among lawmakers, including one aimed at raising funding for antitrust authorities through higher merger fees; The Senate recently passed a similar bill. Another bill that could gain momentum would give consumers the option to broadcast their digital story to other websites, which would weaken the stranglehold of large companies like Facebook on personal data.
But other bills will be more difficult to pass. It would be illegal for a company like Google, which has a dominant search engine, to own another company that relies heavily on online search. For example, under the new law, the company would not be allowed to prefer search results for its YouTube video service, and it could be required to outsource the video business if it prefers it over competitors. Another bill would prohibit a dominant company from using its weight to exclude competitors and others who wanted access to its platform, such as requiring the company to buy goods and services.
Adam Kovacevich, head of the Chamber of Progress, a lobby group with big tech members, said consumers would be withheld from popular products if the bills were successful.
“The ban on amenities such as Amazon Basics brand batteries, Apple’s Find my Phone tool or Google Maps that appear in Google search results are ideas that would trigger a response from consumers,” he said.
Facebook and Google declined to comment. Amazon and Apple did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Some smaller tech companies welcomed the bills.
Roku, the maker of online streaming devices, said in a statement that the largest tech companies are “severely ignoring” existing antitrust laws and causing harm to consumers.
“Aggressive reforms are needed to prevent a future in which these monopolists continue to abuse consumer choice and hinder access to innovative and independent products,” the company said.
Antitrust experts say the bills will encourage enforcement agencies, who have been constrained by court decisions that narrowed the interpretation of centuries-old antitrust laws.
“This is in response to the fact that our antitrust laws have been interpreted so narrowly by the Supreme Court,” said Eleanor M. Fox, a law professor at New York University. “Because of this problem, it is very appropriate for Congress to step in to ban and determine what is bad and what is good for the markets.”
Republicans are divided on the bills. Colorado Rep. Ken Buck, a Republican on the subcommittee, has been a staunch critic of the power of big tech. But he has also insisted on tightening aspects of the law to ensure smaller businesses don’t get swept up in the changes.
Mr Buck, like other Republicans, has particularly criticized the power of social media firms over the speech, claiming that conservative political figures are being censored by Facebook and Google.
“This legislation breaks big tech’s monopoly power to control what Americans see and say online,” he said, “and promotes an online marketplace that encourages innovation and enables American small businesses to compete fairly. Doing nothing is not an option. We just act now. “