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Congress moves closer to setting limits on Big Tech. How far will lawmakers go?
Jun 25, 2021

Congress moves closer to setting limits on Big Tech. How far will lawmakers go?

The fight to break down Big Tech transcends party lines. Representatives from both sides of the aisle sponsored bills.

This week, after nearly 30 hours of debate, the House Judiciary Committee passed a series of antitrust bills that could weaken the power and influence of the biggest tech companies.

The proposed legislation would increase merger filing fees to give regulators more money to police them, prohibit big companies from snapping up smaller competitors and even force tech giants to sell off parts of their business that create conflicts of interest. Like, say, Amazon both operating a major platform for e-commerce and selling its own products on that platform. All of the measures had some bipartisan support, but there’s still a lot of disagreement even within parties about how far to go.

It’s a topic for Quality Assurance, where we take a second look at a big tech story. Makena Kelly followed the hearings as a policy reporter at The Verge. She said just the fact that all six bills passed out of committee is pretty significant. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Makena Kelly: This has been happening for years and years and years, and it moved through this long investigation, this tedious investigation with hundreds of thousands of documents, and all of these lawmakers compelling these big companies to give all of this evidence over, and then having these reports, and then more hearings. This really is the moment where we see the changes that Congress wants to make and how the market could be reshaped for the second leg of the 21st century.

Amy Scott: I’m interested in the conversation that came out of these hearings. What did you hear that surprised you?

Kelly: So, when these bills were first introduced, they came out surprisingly bipartisan. Something that you would not have predicted last year when this investigation was still ongoing. At the end of the investigation, Republican ranking member Ken Buck [of Colorado] authored his own report, basically disagreeing with everything Democrats said. So it was a complete change of direction when these bills were introduced. But then, seeing the fractures in both Democratic caucus and the Republican caucus was really interesting. You had California representatives, of course, notably the home of Silicon Valley, criticizing the bills pretty greatly when it comes to things like interoperability and these structural separation bills. And then, of course, you had Republicans on the more populist right, like Jim Jordan, [of Ohio] who was trying to get Republican censorship and all of these kind of nongermane issues brought into the conversation as well.

Scott: Specifically, what Big Tech companies are these House lawmakers going after with these bills?

Kelly: So the initial investigation actually focused on four of the big ones: Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. But it’s not really exactly legal for Congress to write a law that targets a specific company. They can’t just have the Amazon Bill, right? So they basically, throughout the course of the investigation, they picked several companies that have, you know, different revenue streams, maybe they’re social media, and maybe they’re a search engine, to kind of look at the industry as a whole. So, of course, it focuses on these four companies, but it has greater consequences for the entire industry and for just tech companies at large.

Scott: And there was some concern in the hearing that, “Hey, what about Microsoft?” which meets some of these requirements, but it was clearly left out of the idea of who was being targeted.

Kelly: Right, and of course, when the CEOs came to testify before the committee last summer, Microsoft was not one of the CEOs or presidents or anyone who came to testify. So, there was definitely some concern about Microsoft being left out. But if you do look at the text of the bills, Microsoft does expect to be affected if these were to be passed into law in some manner.

Scott: Understanding that these bills are very different in their scope, if they pass or if any of them pass, how do you think consumers would feel the effects?

Kelly: So it is an interesting thing. When I look at the bills, it feels like Congress is literally getting inside of your device — is getting inside of your iPhone. And basically, maybe when you buy a new iPhone at the Apple Store, it might not have iMessage on it. It might not have iCalendar. It might not have all the apps downloaded on it that you normally would expect to see, if these bills were passed. And of course, any big structural change like this is going to be a little shocking for consumers, but it’s hard to predict exactly how detrimental or how effective it will be.

Scott: So where do we go from here?

Kelly: Now these bills go to the House floor. These lawmakers still have questions, and they’re still going to be amending these bills before they get to the House floor. So there’s going to be some conversations there about what changes before everyone votes. And then, of course, a vote needs to be called. That’s basically up to [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi, right, and when she wants to get that moving. There is no timeline, so that could happen whenever. And then also we have to watch out for Amy Klobuchar’s companion bills being introduced in the Senate. So even though it feels like this two-year-long investigation is finally culminating into bills might be over, it’s really just the beginning of a second leg of a longer process. But it’s edging closer and closer and closer to the finish line.

Related Links: Insight from Amy Scott

It’s not just Congress that Big Tech has to worry about. Last week, President Joe Biden swore in a new chair of the Federal Trade Commission: Lina Khan. As I talked about then, Khan made her name as a critic of Amazon’s monopoly power, and she’s not wasting any time.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the FTC will review Amazon’s proposed merger with MGM. The FTC shares responsibility for approving mergers with the Justice Department, and according to unnamed sources in the Journal, had petitioned to take this case given the commission’s existing investigation into Amazon’s business practices. The FTC and Justice Department had previously agreed to divvy up the work of investigating the four tech giants for potential anticompetitive practices with Justice taking Apple and Google and the FTC handling Facebook and Amazon.

Khan also named three top staff members this week, and The Information has details. Holly Vedova will oversee antitrust enforcement as acting director of the agency’s Bureau of Competition, Sam Levine will head up the Bureau of Consumer Protection as acting director, and Erie Meyer was named chief technologist and a policy adviser to Khan.

All three of them worked for FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra, as did Lina Khan in the past. Chopra is set to leave the FTC to be the next director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, if confirmed by the Senate.

And if you want to get involved, the new FTC chair announced the commission will start holding monthly meetings open to the public starting July 1.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
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Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer