WASHINGTON – Six bills that could reshape the power of the tech industry have cleared a major hurdle in the House of Representatives. But the results of the votes and the debates before that also showed divisions among lawmakers – and underscored why final adoption of the package is likely to be difficult.
In a marathon session of debate and voting that began Wednesday morning and continued into Thursday, the Justice Committee put forward the series of laws designed to weaken the dominance of big tech. The bills would pile up antitrust authorities, make it difficult to acquire potential competitors, and prevent platforms from selling or promoting their own products in order to discriminate against competitors.
The Democrats, who had the most say in the bills and overwhelmingly support the proposals, focus on the market power of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. New York MP Jerrold Nadler, Democratic chairman of the committee, said the votes “pave the way for a stronger economy and democracy for the American people by curbing anti-competitive abuse of the most dominant firms.”
A handful of Republicans approved the proposals with the Democrats. These Republicans argue that the proposals would help address one of their main concerns: the power social media companies have over the talk, and what they argue is political bias and censorship of conservative voices.
But many other Republicans say the bills only add more government intervention, but don’t directly address their concerns about freedom of expression.
That debate within the Republican Party sparked on Wednesday when the first bill was put to the vote. The proposal, considered one of the least controversial of the six, would raise fees on some mergers to raise more funding for the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department, which regulate the deal.
During a three-hour debate on the bill, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the committee, said it was a seizure of power for the Democrat-led antitrust authorities, making them bigger and more influential. He also said the antitrust laws don’t address the ability of Facebook and other social media companies to cut off political votes.
“Big tech censors conservatives,” said Jordan, a claim he has made repeatedly despite data showing that many conservative personalities are successful on social media. “These bills don’t solve that problem; they make it worse. “
Colorado Rep. Ken Buck, a Republican compatriot and co-sponsor of the bills, agreed for tech companies to silence conservatives. But he summoned his party for unity in order to take power from Big Tech, saying the proposals would limit the overall power of the corporations.
“These bills are conservative,” said Buck.
While progressive lawmakers largely support the bills, the proposals have frustrated California Democratic lawmakers, who say they go too far in regulating their state’s best-known companies.
Lou Correa, a Democrat from Southern California, said the number of people in the state working for the big tech companies has increased significantly and has helped fund services such as public education and assistance for people affected by Covid.
“These companies – high tech – are why California has a budget surplus as opposed to a deficit,” he said, adding later, “We want to make sure we don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.”
Other California Democrats who raised concerns about the bill included Rep. Zoe Lofgren, whose district includes part of San Jose, and Rep. Eric Swalwell.
Ms. Lofgren worried during the hearing that the bills could ensnare companies that do not share the immense size of the tech giants. Mr Swalwell said before the hearing even started that he would oppose several of the bills.
“In my district alone, I represent thousands – probably in the five-digit range – of employees affected by the proposed laws,” he said. “It is these people for whose work, family and livelihood I was chosen to protect them – and for whom I have to stand up today.”
The adoption of the bills by the committee starts a much more difficult process. Eight Democratic lawmakers have asked spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi, who has a tremendous influence on the adoption of bills across the House, to slow the process down. Legislators reiterated the arguments put forward by companies like Apple that the bills could open security and privacy loopholes for customers.
Ms. Pelosi said at a news conference Thursday that she directed concerned tech companies to be instrumental in drafting the law as she walks through the House, but she noted that lawmakers on both sides were concerned about the power of Silicon Valley have become.
“They can come up with what they want,” she says. “But we will not ignore the consolidation that has taken place and the concerns on both sides of the aisle.”
The challenge is even tougher in the Senate, where the bills each require significant Republican support to get the 60 votes required to override the legislative filibuster. Some Republicans, including Missouri’s Josh Hawley, have pushed for tougher antitrust laws. However, it is unclear whether many more will join him.
Some bills, like the one to generate more money for regulators, may face less opposition than others. The committee approved this bill on Wednesday by 29 votes to 12. The sixth and final bill, a measure that could disrupt elements of the tech giants’ businesses, was approved Thursday afternoon from 9pm to 8pm.
“We think it’s a steep climb for the toughest of calculations,” said Paul Gallant, research analyst at Cowen and Company. “The Senate filibuster is always the highest hurdle, and I suspect he will hold back the toughest of these bills. But the house is going faster and further against the technology than anyone expected. “
The bills are met with fierce opposition from technology companies who have orchestrated their extensive lobbying activities. Ahead of Wednesday’s voting, Apple sent a letter to committee chairs warning that if the bills were passed, it would be unable to provide certain privacy and security features to users. Think tanks and lobby groups financed by technology companies issued critical statements before the votes.
The bills “select a handful of America’s most innovative and globally competitive tech companies for divestments and draconian regulation,” said Alec Stapp, director of the Progressive Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank sponsored by tech companies.
Chamber of Progress, a newly formed trading group representing Amazon and Google, said a recent Morning Consult poll showed voters do not view technical regulation as a top priority.
“Consumers want the government to review and regulate the tech industry, but they don’t want Congress to redesign apps and services that make their lives easier,” said Chamber of Progress Chairman Adam Kovacevich.
Alex Harman, an advocate for competition policy at Public Citizen who pushed for the bills, said Wednesday’s votes were an important moment. Almost a decade ago, he said, Capitol Hill had given little support to an investigation into Google’s practices by the Federal Trade Commission, which eventually decided not to pursue a lawsuit against the company.
“Nine years later, we find ourselves in a world where a serious bipartisan effort on a committee is not only trying to move an investigation forward, but trying to resolve it,” he said. “This is a big deal.”