Klobuchar pulls vote on bipartisan tech bill, says agreement ‘blown up’ by Cruz amendment

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Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) asked to pull a committee vote on a bill aimed at giving news outlets the ability to negotiate collectively with tech platforms after she said an adopted amendment offered by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) impeded the bipartisan agreement senators reached ahead of the Thursday meeting.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee were slated to vote on a revised version of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, but Klobuchar asked to hold it after Cruz’s amendment was adopted by a one-vote margin by the Republicans on the committee.

“I think the agreement that we had has been blown up,” Klobuchar said.

In a statement, she said she fully plans to move forward with the bill.

“This bill is about protecting local journalism by leveling the playing field and allowing local news outlets to band together to negotiate for fair compensation from tech platforms. I am committed to targeted, bipartisan legislation to achieve this goal,” she said in the statement.

The amendment passed in a 11-10 vote. Sen. John Ossoff (D-Ga.), who is isolating in India after testing positive for COVID-19, was not present and did not provide a proxy vote either way on the amendment — giving the GOP senators an upper hand.

The underlying bill would grant newsrooms that employ fewer than 1,500 full-time employees — a cap essentially aimed at excluding the country’s three largest newspapers and national broadcasters — the ability to collectively negotiate with dominant tech platforms, like Google and Facebook, to be compensated for distributing their content.

The bill would also create a limited safe harbor from federal and state antitrust laws for eligible digital journalism providers that would allow them to participate in joint negotiations. The antitrust exemption would allow news outlets to collectively negotiate in a way supporters say would help the outlets craft deals with the tech giants.

Cruz’s amendment sought to eliminate the antitrust exemption if either side in negotiations mentions content moderation, adding to his ongoing accusations that tech giants are censoring conservative content.

“It simply says the topic of discussion when the two sides get together can’t be censorship. It should be ad revenue, which is what all of this discussion of this markup has focused on,” Cruz said.

Klobuchar said the amendment would essentially give tech platforms a “get out of jail free card.”

“Since news outlets depend on the antitrust exemption while the covered platforms do not, the platforms could then raise content moderations at the first opportunity in an attempt to avoid the joint negotiations,” she said.

Klobuchar made a direct plea to Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), a sponsor of the bill, not to support the amendment ahead of the vote.

“Sen. Kennedy, we worked on this for months and we won’t be able to support the Cruz amendment here, so I’m hoping we can talk about this in the future. But if this is in it we can’t support the bill,” she said.

Kennedy voted with the committee’s other GOP members on the amendment.

Cruz said in a statement the outcome of the markup was a “huge victory for the First Amendment and free speech,” and ramped up his accusations of anti-conservative censorship online.

“[Democrats] would rather pull their bill entirely than advance it with my proposed protections for Americans from unfair online censorship,” Cruz said.

The bill also faced pushback from senators on both sides of the aisle before Cruz’s amendment halted the ultimate vote, signaling it may have a rough path forward in the Senate if presented again.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a supporter of other antitrust bills targeting tech giants that Klobuchar has put forward, said he could not support the bill because he views it as being “pro-trust” by shrinking antitrust rules.

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) also voiced content moderation concerns, but from the other side of the issue from Cruz. Padilla raised concerns about a provision in the bill that says tech platforms may not “discriminate against any eligible digital journalism provider that is a member of a joint negotiation entity.”

Tech groups raised similar concerns about the provision ahead of the hearing, arguing it could force platforms to host and fund content even if it is extremist.

Klobuchar remained steadfast in saying that the bill is not about content moderation.

The bill is facing opposition from a joint force of tech industry and advocacy groups. Twenty-one groups sent a letter to senators on the committee last week urging against advancing the proposal.

But the News Media Alliance, a trade association representing newspapers, is advocating for its passage and says it would help the industry survive as tech companies cut into news outlets’ ad revenue.

Updated at 1:58 p.m.

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