Will Congress Pass New Big Tech Regulations? Time may be running out.

Capitol Hill lawmakers are preparing a major push on bills aimed at curbing the power of the nation’s biggest tech companies as they see the window of opportunity rapidly closing ahead of the midterm elections.

In a significant step forward, a Senate committee voted Thursday to advance a bill that would ban companies like Amazon, Apple and Google from promoting their own products over those of their competitors. Many House lawmakers are pushing for a series of antitrust bills that would make it easier to break up the tech giants. And some are making last-ditch efforts to pass bills designed to bolster privacy, protect children online, combat misinformation, restrict targeted advertising, and regulate artificial intelligence and cryptocurrencies.

Most of the proposals submitted to Congress are by far. President Biden and top congressional Democrats have said tackling the power of industry is a top priority, but many other issues are even higher on their list. These include passing suffrage legislation, fixing labor and supply chain constraints, enacting a social services package, and exiting the nation of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Still, the next few months are probably the last best chance for a while. After that, attention will turn to the midterm elections, and Democrats, who support tech efforts in far greater numbers than Republicans, could lose control of Congress.

“It’s been a long-simmering issue, and it’s become pretty obvious to everyone,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, who has led the push for tougher laws on tech companies. “But when you get to the fall, it’s going to be very difficult to get things done because it’s all about the election.”

Congress has coalesced around a growing concern about tech giants in recent years. Yet dozens of bills have failed to pass, even as many other countries have tightened their regulations for the industry.

When Mr Biden took office last year, he promised to inject more competition into the economy, particularly in the technology sector. He has appointed voice-tech critics to lead antitrust agencies, and this month his press secretary said the president was “encouraged to see the bipartisan interest in Congress to pass legislation aimed at fight against the power of technology platforms through antitrust legislation”.

Bruce Reed, the White House deputy chief of staff, and Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council, met on Wednesday with executives from companies including Yelp and Sonos, who have been pushing for antitrust action against the giants of technology. They discussed the challenges “entrepreneurs, brick-and-mortar retailers and other businesses face in industries dominated by a few large platforms,” ​​White House officials said. The administration said it plans to work with Congress, but has not approved any of the specific laws aimed at the companies.

To complicate matters, while both sides largely agree that Congress should do something, they often disagree on what it should be.

Over the past few years, dozens of privacy, speech, security and antitrust bills have collapsed amid disagreements over how to balance consumer protections while encouraging Silicon’s growth. Valley. Some bills, like those dealing with online content moderation, are particularly polarizing: Democrats have called for measures that would push companies to remove more misinformation and content from their sites that have contributed to real harm. . Republicans have backed laws to force companies to leave more content.

“Everyone has a bone to pick with Big Tech, but when it comes to doing something, that’s where bipartisanship breaks down,” said Rebecca Allensworth, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School who specializes in antitrust law.

“At the end of the day, regulation is regulation,” she said, “so you’ll be hard pressed to get a lot of Republicans on board with a bill that’s seen as an aggressive, blunt withdrawal through regulation of Big Tech.”

The bill the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced Thursday, for example, could block Amazon from directing shoppers to its Amazon-branded toilet paper and socks while making it harder to find comparisons for those products from others. brands. This could force Apple to allow alternatives to Apple Pay in iPhone apps. And it could prevent Google from putting its own services like travel prices, restaurant reviews, and shopping results at the top of search results.

Introduced by Ms. Klobuchar and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, the legislation aims to address concerns that a handful of tech giants act as gatekeepers to digital goods and services. Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft have a combined market capitalization of over $9 trillion. Several Republicans voted in favor of the bill, which passed 16-6. Although Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee repeated a consistent party talking point about “unintended consequences” for future companies that could be swept away by law, others said the threats posed by the tech giants outweighed those concerns.

Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, voted in favor of the bill and pointed out that his biggest concern was how social media giants were moderating content. He and other Republicans on the committee said they believe companies like Apple, Google and Facebook are censoring conservative voices by banning apps like Parler, a right-wing site, and deleting the accounts of conservative figures.

“It would provide protections to content providers who are discriminated against for the content they produce,” Cruz said. “I think it’s a significant step forward.”

Ms Klobuchar described the vote as “a historic and significant moment”, as the first antitrust bill targeting technology to come out of committee.

“As dominant digital platforms – some of the biggest companies our world has ever seen – increasingly prioritize their own products and services, we need to put policies in place to ensure that small businesses and entrepreneurs always have the opportunity to succeed in the digital market,” she said.

But she acknowledged there was a lot of work ahead of her and Mr. Grassley to persuade congressional leaders to support final passage.

Consumer groups and a coalition of dozens of tech start-ups support the bill. Some consumer advocates have likened the legislation to a law that required monopoly television providers to offer access to all networks to cable customers. This action, they say, did not lead to the demise of the cable television industry, but prevented monopoly providers from foreclosing competition.

“Consumers will benefit from this bill by making it easier to install, choose and use alternative apps and online services,” said Sumit Sharma, senior researcher for technology competition at Consumer Reports, “allowing consumers and small businesses to more easily switch between ecosystems by mixing and matching services from different providers.

Silicon Valley lobbyists have fought the bill in published opinion pieces, ad campaigns and individual appeals. Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google’s parent company Alphabet, and Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple, called on lawmakers to oppose the bill.

Business lobbyists have argued that the legislation could make it harder to tackle malware and bugs in devices and could make their services less useful. In a blog post on Tuesday, Google Chief Legal Officer Kent Walker painted a dire picture of the effects this and other bills could have: The company may have to stop including a map vaccination sites in search results if the law is passed, he said. He may need to stop blocking spam in Gmail. It may not be able to show someone seeking medical help “clear information” and “instead it has to direct you to a mix of shoddy results”.

The companies also said the proposals – focused on their scale – would hurt small businesses. In recent months, Amazon has urged merchants who sell products through its marketplace to contact lawmakers worried about the bills.

Brian Huseman, the company’s vice president of public policy, said in a statement that the legislation could jeopardize Amazon’s ability to offer Prime shipping benefits to or allow such sellers on its platform. form.

Ms. Klobuchar’s bill specifically targets a growing business for Amazon: directly competing with these outside merchants by offering its own products, such as its Amazon Basics line.

Amazon says many big retailers, like Costco and Walmart, are doing the same. “The authors of the bill target common retail practices and, disturbingly, appear to single out Amazon while giving preferential treatment to other large retailers who engage in the same practices,” Huseman said. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, both California Democrats, repeated the companies’ arguments, saying the Silicon Valley giants were unfairly targeted by a bill that could help rivals in China like TikTok and Tencent.

Ms Klobuchar said tech companies launched deceptive attacks. “They don’t like our bill,” she said. “You can see the commercials on TV.”

Ahead of Thursday’s session, Ms. Klobuchar and Mr. Grassley proposed changes they said would address concerns about user privacy and hamper subscription services like Amazon Prime. The new release also seemed likely to cover TikTok.

Even though Ms. Klobuchar’s bill passed the Judiciary Committee on Thursday, its sponsors face the tougher challenge of getting 60 senators to support it. In the House, supporters of the antitrust bills must also rally enough Republicans to account for Democrats who oppose the proposals.

“They talked about the cascade of legislative possibilities,” said William E. Kovacic, former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. “None of that happened. And the clock is ticking. »

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