Tim Cook, Ted Cruz and the strange politics of tech antitrust

Democrats and Republicans have found the tech reform debate scrambles traditional party politics — and the Apple CEO and Texas senator have found themselves chatting.

Capitol building

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill on Thursday that could remake the tech industry.

Photo: PartTime Portraits/Unsplash

Strange alliances formed ahead of Thursday's vote to advance a key antitrust bill to the Senate floor, with frequent foes like Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Ted Cruz supporting the measure, and prominent Democrats including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein pushing back against it.

Ultimately the bill moved out of the Senate Judiciary Committee by a vote of 16-6 after a surprisingly speedy debate (at least, speedy for the Senate). Even some of the lawmakers who called for further changes agreed to move the bill forward — a sign that the itch to finally regulate Big Tech after years of congressional inaction is intensifying, even as the issue scrambles traditional party politics in a way that could threaten its final passage.

The bipartisan measure, which is led by Klobuchar and would ban self-preferencing by Big Tech platforms such as Amazon or Google, represents the most serious and far-reaching proposal to remake the mightiest tech businesses. The American Innovation and Choice Online Act prohibits online gatekeepers from "favoring their own products or services," and would largely prevent Google, for instance, from giving a boost to its own local search results over Yelp's. It has brought out an unusual coalition, uniting Democrats hoping to extend competition rules with Republicans who object to platforms’ treatment of conservative speech.

“We have a lot of support for this bill,” Klobuchar said early in the session.

On the other side, the bill’s opponents consisted largely of the usual suspects: Republicans who have been historically sympathetic to business leaders who themselves are loud opponents of the bill. Some other lawmakers, from both sides of the aisle, expressed concerns about the measure’s effect on issues like privacy.

Yet it was California Democrats, concerned about a measure that would target some of the biggest employers in their state, who exposed perhaps the biggest fissures.

“It’s specifically designed to target a small number of specific companies, most of which are headquartered in my home state,” Feinstein complained, saying that she had heard that some federal agencies might have concerns about the bill’s effect on national security. Some lawmakers have worried that provisions designed to stop Big Tech from hoarding data as a way to box out rivals could allow foreign companies to obtain useful information, or even that an assault on U.S. tech giants could give China a leg up.

Klobuchar later jumped in to defend her bill against her longtime colleague, calling Feinstein's allegation a “bold statement” that she believed was "not true.”

Despite her concerns, Feinstein ultimately voted to advance the bill, as did several other senators who said they wanted to see additional changes before final passage. Those included Democrats Patrick Leahy and Alex Padilla (the other senator from California), as well as Cruz and John Kennedy, both Republicans.

Cruz and Cook

During the hearing, Klobuchar said the bill was informed by extensive consultation and scholarship, answering concerns from lawmakers and the tech industry that the full committee had not held a hearing on the measure.

Big Tech companies and trade groups, including the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have lobbied furiously in opposition to the bill with a flurry of letters and public statements arguing that the bill did not have sufficient legislative hearing and that it posed a danger to privacy and popular services.

There’s been lobbying behind the scenes too: At one point during the hearing, Cruz said he’d spent 40 minutes on the phone with Tim Cook on Wednesday, during which the Apple CEO worried the bill would “erect obstacles to Apple giving consumers the ability to opt out of apps monitoring what they’re doing online,” Cruz said.

Apple has spent recent years feuding with Meta, and the conflict got particularly hot last year when Apple allowed users to opt out of Facebook and other apps' tracking on the iPhone.

Klobuchar and Chuck Grassley, the bill’s co-sponsor and the top Republican on the judiciary panel, successfully introduced changes that Klobuchar said would protect users’ ability to opt out of third-party data sharing and would ensure that firms could still offer popular add-on subscription services, such as Amazon Prime or Google Maps.

Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment on the conversation. Cruz ultimately voted to move the bill out of committee, despite calling Cook’s concerns reasonable.

‘Get to a yes’

While the bill is ostensibly about antitrust, Thursday’s debate also included familiar partisan debates about what the bill would mean for regulating speech online. Like several Republicans who spoke, Cruz urged the panel to do more to address conservative allegations that social media platforms silence right-wing speech. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Padilla, the California Democrat, said the measure would actually do too much to tip the scales away from content moderation because a provision within it could allow services like, say, Parler to argue that blocking them is anticompetitive.

“This provision can be a gift to bad actors seeking to prevent platforms from blocking business users that peddle hate speech or … election disinformation,” he said.

Several Republicans also worried that the bill gave too much power to the Federal Trade Commission and other agencies, and offered little opportunity for companies to argue that their conduct benefits consumers more than it hurts them — a common antitrust defense.

“I have questions about who’s covered by the law, what it permits and what’s going to happen in terms of enforcement,” said Republican Thom Tillis, who prepared dozens of amendments, though he didn’t bring them up for a vote and said he hoped “to work to get to a yes.”

Klobuchar originally introduced the bill last fall, after several months of work, many of which were devoted to modifying a proposal that grew out of the House’s 16-month investigation into Big Tech’s competitive practices.

Although the House proposal was also bipartisan, Klobuchar will still need a filibuster-proof majority to pass her version in the Senate, meaning she and her allies will need to spend more time at the negotiating table. The fact that Klobuchar’s bill has such broad and high-level support on both sides of the aisle has excited tech critics. Yet the complicated politics and conflicting calls for further changes signal that the bill still has to overcome the intense legislative inertia that has doomed many other efforts, even as time runs out in the current Congress.

“Nearly 40 years later, we are still here without a single piece of meaningful competition legislation addressing the massive economy that [the internet] has created,” Klobuchar said in her introduction. “This is our moment.”



Michael Pryor, co-founder of Trello (now a part of Atlassian), explains what he's learned along the way and his advice for other companies that are looking to build a truly collaborative culture that keeps employees feeling connected — from wherever they choose to work.

Learn more


Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep ReadingShow less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep ReadingShow less
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep ReadingShow less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep ReadingShow less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.


Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep ReadingShow less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories