House Judiciary Committee debates antitrust legislation to rein in Big Tech

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The House of Representatives Judiciary Committee began debate on Wednesday on five antitrust bills designed to curb the influence of the Big Tech giants.  

Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday began debate on a series of bills aimed at reining in the power of  Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and other tech giants. The first of the five bills advanced out of committee by early afternoon on Wednesday.

The debate is part of the markup process, by which lawmakers in the House Judiciary Committee discuss the proposals and any amendments before deciding whether they should advance to the full House. 

The package of antitrust legislation aimed at Big Tech has wide bipartisan support and is an example of the rare instance in which key Democrats and Republicans on the Judiciary antitrust subcommittee are working together.  Chairman of the antitrust subcommittee, Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, and the subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado collaborated on an 18-month investigation of the tech companies. The subcommittee’s report was made public in October, concluding the companies were using their monopoly power to stifle competition. 

If passed, the legislation, which was introduced earlier this month, would mark the most meaningful change to antitrust laws in decades. The bills could also have serious repercussions for the tech giants, including breaking up the companies, forcing changes in how they do business and requiring changes to how their products operate. One bill, for example, would outlaw acquisitions meant to squash competitors or expand “market power.” Another would bar companies from collecting data from developers and other firms using their platforms. There’s also a bill to force companies to allow users to easily switch from one tech company’s products to another.

In spite of the bipartisan support for the bills, the debate during the markup hearing has been lengthy, often veering off into unrelated topics. The first bill that advanced out of the committee was the Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act, which would increase merger filing fees to give the government more money to enforce antitrust laws. It’s considered the least controversial bill of the antitrust package, and it was debated for three hours before passing out of the committee 29-12. 

All the Democrats on the committee supported the bill, along with Republicans, Ken Buck of Colorado, Chip Roy of Texas, Burgess Owens of Ohio, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Victoria Spartz of Indiana. 

Some Republicans, such as Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who is also the ranking member of the full Judiciary Committee, objected to the bill, arguing for more restrictions on how the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department will spend the additional funds. As he often does, he also accused the major tech platforms of censoring conservative voices online. 

There was also time spent debating amendments that seemingly had little to do with the legislation. For example, Republican Rep. Chip Roy of Texas proposed an amendment that would prohibit the FTC and DOJ from using increased funding to promote critical race theory.

Democrat Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland called such amendments a “distraction” from the task at hand. Buck noted to his fellow Republicans opposing the bill that similar legislation passed the Senate unanimously.  

The Judiciary Committee also passed the State Antitrust Enforcement Venue Act in a 34-7 vote. This bill, which was introduced at the end of May, would prevent cases filed by state attorneys general from being transferred to another jurisdiction. This bill was considered in addition to the five bills introduced in June, which seem to specifically target tech companies.

Push back from tech giants has begun

On Wednesday morning ahead of the markup hearing, Apple published a statement to make its case to lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Apple, which has had tight control over its App Store since it launched in 2008, argued against a provision in one of the bills that would force the company to open its App Store more to outside developers. 

“Today, our phones are not just phones; they store some of our most sensitive information about our personal and professional lives,” Apple began in its statement, which spans more than a dozen pages. “Allowing sideloading would degrade the security of the iOS platform and expose users to serious security risks not only on third-party app stores, but also on the App Store.”

Amazon and Google have also begun pushing back on the legislation. The companies each released statements on Tuesday opposing the bills and calling for the Judiciary Committee to slow down its process, which has moved from the introduction of the legislation to markup within two weeks.

But members of the committee defended the process. During the markup hearing, Buck tweeted

“The House Judiciary Committee’s markup of my antitrust legislation is not rushed. The Antitrust Subcommittee’s investigation was 18 months long. Our bipartisan bills are the result of that investigation, and my colleagues have had the bills for over two weeks.”

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