Future Tense

All the Ways Silicon Valley Is Freaking Out About Congress’ Plan to Break Up Big Tech

An illustration picture shows the logos of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft displayed on a mobile phone.
Congress is considering sweeping reforms for the tech industry. Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

Congress is currently considering six antitrust bills, all introduced earlier this month, that would substantially constrain the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Google in a moment of bipartisan skepticism toward major technology companies. The legislative effort is the result of a 16-month investigation by the House antitrust subcommittee into anticompetitive practices in the industry. Last week, the House Judiciary Committee approved all six bills over the protests of industry groups and major corporations. Breaking up Big Tech suddenly looks a little less hard to do.

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The antitrust bills still a ways to go before potentially reaching President Joe Biden’s desk. It’s unclear whether the package has the same level of bipartisan support in the Senate as it seems to have in the House, and the House Judiciary Committee is expected to do more work on the legislation before it’s introduced to the entire body.

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Many of the bills have had the effect of fracturing partisan lines and jumbling usual alliances. Democrats have railed against Big Tech for concentrating corporate power and allowing misinformation and hate speech to flourish on their platforms, while Republicans have accused such companies of suppressing conservative speech (while generally ignorning all the other stuff). Members from both parties nevertheless had doubts about the bills. Three Democratic representatives from California—Eric Swalwell, Lou Correa, and Zoe Lofgren—opposed five of the six bills, and joined Republicans in releasing a statement claiming the package leaves many questions about the scope of the legislation unanswered and “poses harm to American consumers and the U.S. economy.” Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan separately complained that the legislation did not address allegations of anti-conservative bias and warned that it would somehow actually give more power to tech companies. “These Democrat bills will only make things worse,” he wrote in a Fox News op-ed with Donald Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows. “If you think Big Tech is bad now, just wait until Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google are working in collusion with Big Government.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is notably working on another package to address what Republicans see as the silencing of conservatives on social media.

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The bills vary considerably in their reach, and Big Tech seems to have issues with some more than others. The Wall Street Journal reports that lobbyists and trade groups have been trying to slow down the legislative process so that they’ll have more time to win over lawmakers to vote the bills down. The Chamber of Progress, a trade group funded by Amazon, Google, and Facebook, has been a leading voice opposing the package and recently passed around a survey purportedly showing that Americans don’t think this sort of legislation is a high priority for Congress. Some companies are weighing the option of waging public campaigns against the package. Google and Amazon officials say that such laws would end up hurting small businesses the most, while Apple has already publicly stated that it believes some of the legislation will put users at risk for security breaches. Apple CEO Tim Cook has even reportedly been calling up members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to express his dismay.

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Here’s a rough ranking of the bills by how many panic attacks they seem to be causing in Mountain View, Cupertino, Menlo Park, and Seattle.

The Industry Isn’t Sweating It

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The most limited and least controversial of the bills are H.R. 3843 and H.R. 3460. The former would raise the filing fees for mergers, while the latter would empower state attorneys general to pick which courts hear antitrust cases. Fees? Lawyer stuff? Silicon Valley can handle it.

The Industry Is Sweating It

Among the more substantial bills is H.R. 3826, which would ban tech platforms from acquiring potential rivals. This practice has been at the core of Facebook’s strategy to increase its scale and consolidate its influence; two of its most successful acquisitions have been Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014. The law would place a greater burden on the companies to prove that an acquisition wouldn’t hurt competition. The Federal Trade Commission already filed a lawsuit in December seeking to force Facebook to spin off those two the subsidiaries, and this legislation could prevent similar deals from going through in the future. Another potentially consequential bill is H.R. 3849, which would make it easier for users to transfer their data between services and led to one of the lengthiest debates in the markup session. As Axios notes, this is akin to regulations requiring wireless companies to let people keep the same phone number while switching services. Rep. Lofgren, who represents San Jose, the biggest population center in Silicon Valley, voiced “substantial concerns” that the legislation could actually end up exposing users’ private information.

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The Industry Has Melted Into a Pool of Sweat That Is Also Somehow Exploding

The bills that seem to have generated the most pushback from the tech industry were H.R. 3816, which would prohibit companies from give their own products and services an unfair upper hand on their platforms, and H.R. 3825, which would give regulators more power to break up monopolies. If passed, H.R. 3816 could potentially force Apple to take extra steps to ensure that products like Apple Music don’t upstage competitors like Spotify on the iPhone and in the App Store. It could also affect Amazon, which sells its own line of products in its marketplace and has been accused of using data about other companies’ sales on the platform to inform the strategy for its private label. (Amazon claims it has rules against such practices.) The Chamber of Progress seems particularly disturbed by this bill, claiming that it would force YouTube to host Pornhub videos and Facebook to display Alex Jones’ conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook shooting. It’s unclear, though, that such a law would have an impact on content moderation.

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H.R. 3825, the monopoly legislation, dictates that regulators can sue to break up tech companies if their operation of a platform presents an “irreconcilable conflict of interest” with selling their own products and services. Such legislation could set regulators’ sights on Google, which ranks videos in its search engine results while also running its subsidiary YouTube, the most prominent hub for online videos. Amazon and Apple could also face extra scrutiny under this law for promoting their own products on their platforms. The bill passed with the narrowest margin, 21 to 20. Four of the committee’s Democrats broke from their party to oppose the bill, while two Republicans—Colorado Rep. Ken Buck and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz – joined the predominantly Democratic majority. Lofgren was particularly outspoken in criticizing the legislation. She balked at the idea that companies like Google and Facebook are far too powerful and told the Washington Post that the monopoly legislation “would essentially, metaphorically, take a grenade and just roll it into the tech economy and just blow it up, and see what happens,” adding that it could threaten tech workers’ jobs.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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