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House Judiciary leaders unveiled their long-promised antitrust package Friday, introducing five bipartisan bills aimed at reining in or even breaking up some of the nation's largest, wealthiest tech companies.
Collectively, the Democratic-led bills take aim at some of the tech empires' most lucrative operations, including Apple's App Store, Amazon's marketplace, Google's YouTube and Android, and Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Instagram. And perhaps most ominously for Silicon Valley, some Republican tech critics immediately announced their support.
Other GOP lawmakers, however, seized the occasion to criticize Democrats for failing to address complaints such as alleged bias by social media companies against conservatives. Staunch supporters of former President Donald Trump, whose Justice Department launched a major antitrust suit against Google, occupied both sides of the divide.
Colorado Rep. Ken Buck, the top GOP member on the House Judiciary antitrust panel, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) and Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Texas) co-sponsored all of the bills, whose main sponsors included antitrust Chair David Cicilline (D-R.I.). Another co-sponsor of part of the package was Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of Trump's most outspoken supporters in Congress.
But Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a Trump ally and the top GOP member on House Judiciary, and his staff urged Republicans to oppose the package, according to a person familiar with the deliberations.
"Democrats: Don’t really want to break up #BigTech — Refuse to address tech’s censorship of conservatives. — Want to give President Biden more power to 'fix' the problem," Jordan tweeted after the legislation was announced. A Jordan spokesperson later tied the issue to Democrats' treatment of Trump, telling POLITICO: "When impeachment manager David Cicilline and other progressives drop a bill, we think it’s wise as conservatives to take time and fully read it and understand it before putting our names next to theirs."
The GOP response could be critical to the bills' fate, given Trump's enormous sway over his party and the need to get at least 10 Republican votes in the Senate.
Four of the bills would prohibit specific behaviors and impose new obligations on the biggest online platforms like Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and potentially Microsoft. The fifth would boost funding for the United States' two antitrust agencies, giving them additional money to help enforce the new laws.
Under the bills, the platforms would be barred from unfairly favoring their own products and buying up potential rivals. They would be required to build new interfaces that allow users or businesses to more easily transfer to competing platforms. And the Justice Department or Federal Trade Commission could sue to force the tech giants to sell off parts of their business if they represent an “irreconcilable conflict of interest.”
Public Knowledge’s Charlotte Slaiman described the package as “the most powerful tools that we’ve seen introduced in Congress to address the power of Big Tech."
“It’s a huge deal. What is needed is additional law on top of antitrust focused on Big Tech, which is what this is,” said Slaiman, a former FTC lawyer who now focuses on competition policy for the public advocacy nonprofit. Public Knowledge receives funding from all five of the major platforms, the U.S.’s three major telecoms, Spotify and publishers like News Corp., though it says it limits the size of corporate donations to ensure its independence.
NetChoice, a trade group backed by major tech companies, immediately blasted the bills and said they would lead to "higher prices, fewer choices, and less innovation."
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who chairs the Senate Judiciary antitrust panel, praised the bills as an "important step forward in creating an innovative, digital economy that works for all Americans."
"In addition to updating our antitrust laws for the twenty-first century, it is vital to set clear rules of the road for big tech platforms to ensure that consumers are treated fairly and online businesses have an opportunity to innovate and thrive," she said.
How much Republican support the legislation garners remains a key question. Although Buck and other Republicans supported the antitrust panel's investigation into the tech giants last year, they ultimately voted against issuing the resulting Judiciary report because Democrats refused to include their concerns about anti-conservative bias and or urge the repeal of a liability shield for online companies. Gaetz and Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah) also co-sponsored some of the legislation introduced Friday.
"Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google have prioritized power over innovation and harmed American businesses and consumers in the process," Buck said in a statement Friday. "This legislation breaks up Big Tech’s monopoly power to control what Americans see and say online and fosters an online market that encourages innovation and provides American small businesses with a fair playing field. Doing nothing is not an option, we must act now.”
Several conservative advocacy groups immediately denounced the legislation, with the libertarian think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute calling it "Washington meddling at its worst."
But more populist conservative groups offered support for the bills, such as the right-leaning American Principles Project.
The bills are targeted to apply only to the major tech platforms. To face repercussions under the legislation, a business' parent company would need to have at least $600 billion in annual sales or market capitalization, a figure that narrows the pool down nine companies globally — the five U.S. tech giants, electric carmaker Tesla, Chinese tech behemoths Tencent and Alibaba, and Taiwanese semiconductor company TSMC. The $600 billion amount is tied to inflation.
But the online platform must also have at least 50 million active U.S. users each month or 100,000 active U.S. businesses, criteria that likely cuts down the application to just the U.S. tech companies.
The Justice Department or Federal Trade Commission would be tasked with determining whether the bills apply to an online platform and then enforcing each of the new requirements. State attorneys general or companies harmed by alleged discrimination will also have the ability to sue for damages.
The conflict-of-interest bill, the most controversial of the five measures, would let the FTC or DOJ sue to force the companies to sell off lines of business and is modeled after Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era banking law that separated commercial and investment banking.
If a suit is successful, the company would be required to sell off the business within two years or face significant penalties. Individuals would be prohibited from sitting being an officer or board member of the original company and the spinoff to prevent future conflicts.
Facebook declined to comment on the legislation. Google declined to comment, referring questions to two D.C.-based trade groups to which it belongs, including NetChoice. Microsoft, Amazon and Apple didn't offer an immediate comment.
Spotify and Roku, two tech companies that have tangled with Apple and Google respectively, both praised the legislation, as did the Coalition for App Fairness, which represents businesses like Epic Games, which sued Apple for antitrust violations last year.
Emily Birnbaum and Cristiano Lima contributed to this report.