Sweeping tech antitrust bills advance, but opposition is louder too

Questions about the scale remain, and the skeptics are growing on both sides.

Rep. David Cicilline

Rep. David Cicilline led an investigation of Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google.

Photo: Bill Clark/Getty

A House committee has advanced its sweeping tech antitrust package — and the political and corporate forces opposing it made clear they won't go quietly even as Congress wrestles with how to push back against consolidation.

During a two-day session that began Wednesday morning, went until dawn Thursday, and picked up again a few hours later, members of the House Judiciary Committee bickered about censorship and critical race theory, cited concerns about Chinese tech and scrambled traditional political alliances.

Despite opposition from both some Republicans and some Democrats on the panel, the committee eventually got around to sending all six of the bipartisan bills that emerged from its months-long investigation of Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google to the House floor.

The package of bills is "going to make a real difference in the lives of small businesses, entrepreneurs, our economy broadly," said Rep. David Cicilline, who led the investigation and shepherded the bills as head of antitrust subcommittee.

For months, tech antitrust has been gaining new momentum in Washington, with a roster of Republicans and Democrats in an uneasy alliance to explore potential reforms. But since the introduction of the bills earlier in June, some members of Congress have stepped forward to say the new era of antitrust aimed at Big Tech is going too far. In some cases, the number of lawmakers could signal trouble for the bills, and the ongoing debates may yet shape the scope of the anti-monopoly moment.

The most aggressive of the six bills could force major tech companies to spin off certain business lines. Others would force Big Tech to share the data that can help upstarts compete, prompt the companies to deal more equitably with those rivals or slow the mergers that help the companies grow.

Throughout the marathon markup, four distinct sets of voices emerged: groups of Democrats in support and in opposition, and groups of Republicans likewise in both camps.

Core Democrats on the committee, including Cicilline, successfully pushed the bills through with help from a group of Republicans who often claim Big Tech silences conservatives and portray powerful companies as a threat to small businesses and consumers.

A bigger group of Republican members, led by Rep. Jim Jordan, expressed their party's traditional skepticism of expanded antitrust enforcement as a government power grab on innovation to push back unsuccessfully against the bills. They often sidelined the debate with claims of censorship, debates about Section 230 and attacks on critical race theory. They were joined in opposition by a small group of Democrats, mostly from California, who said they shared concerns about competition in tech, but disagreed with the bills.

"This bill would essentially, metaphorically, take a grenade and just roll it into the tech economy," Rep. Zoe Lofgren said on Thursday, referring to the bill that allows government enforcers to target "conflicts of interest" arising when Big Tech companies both operate platforms and also participate on them, such as Amazon competing with its own marketplace merchants. Lofgren, a Bay Area Democrat, repeatedly cited the jobs the companies provide as she sought to scale the bills back during the committee's slog through them.

Some moderate Democrats had already been echoing the companies' alarm in a way that could imperil the package in a House floor vote.

"The scope and impact of these bills could have a tremendous impact on the products and services many American consumers currently enjoy and the competitiveness of our innovation economy," said a letter from the leaders of the New Democrat Coalition, which represents nearly 100 lawmakers who adhere more to the political center.

It's not clear how many House Democrats fully agree with the letter, but Democrats control the House narrowly and can spare just a handful of votes before they start needing Republican votes to pass bills.

Big Tech firms and their Washington trade groups spent the days leading up the markup saying the bills would destroy conveniences such as Google Maps or Amazon Prime shipping. One group compared the bills to China's centralized, authoritarian economy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Washington's largest pro-business trade group, warned of "dangerous consequences for America." And Apple CEO Tim Cook personally lobbied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, she said on Thursday. He had told her they were rushed and would hurt consumers, according to the New York Times.

"If you have a substantive concern, put it forth as Congress works its will," Pelosi said she told Cook.

Tech or antitrust?

The scope of lawmakers' ongoing work on the bills is in some ways still up for debate. On the Senate side, despite similar bipartisan frustrations with Big Tech, the leaders of the antitrust subcommittee have aimed for more general reform of the competition laws. Although many proposals might particularly touch on tech, they come at a moment when advocates, lawmakers and others are also concerned about consolidation in health care, agriculture, airlines, telecommunications and other sectors.

The Senate approach seemed to dribble into some of House's debates on its tech-specific bills: Several times, skeptics suggested not that the bills should be more gentle, but that they should potentially be more broad.

"I think that all of us need to ask the question of, are we looking at too few companies?" said Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, suggesting that the bill on data sharing should apply to Microsoft — after days of questions about whether the bills would, or should, apply to the software giant. (The markup began one day after Microsoft became the second U.S. company, after Apple, to pass $2 trillion in valuation.)

At one point, Republicans suggested Microsoft had written the definitions in a bill that excluded it from being covered. Later, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the Washington state Democrat leading the separations bill, said the proposal does in fact did cover the company, which lies just outside her district.

Other lawmakers said they wanted the bills to apply even more broadly, voting for an amendment from Lofgren that would extend the data bill to a larger group of companies worth over $250 billion, including credit card companies, Walmart and other firms.

Lofgren denied that her amendment was a so-called poison pill aimed at killing the bill, although at least one lawmaker, Republican Rep. Chip Roy, said he believed it was. Outside groups supportive of Cicilline's bills also noted that broader bills would almost certainly attract even more corporate opposition and could give a broader range of lawmakers pause.

"It's a poison pill," said Sally Hubbard, director of enforcement strategy at Open Markets Institute. Hubbard, who has written about consolidation across the economy, worked with the House probe. She agreed the panel should "address the crisis of concentration across the entire economy" eventually, but said for now it should focus on the four companies it has already dug into.

Cicilline, Jayapal and others also argued against broadening any of the bills' scope, saying their investigation was the basis of the package, and that measures to change laws for other areas of the economy could have unintended consequences or address less well-established issues.

"We have a proven record of competition being stifled in the markets that GAFA dominates," said Alex Petros, policy counsel at the group Public Knowledge, who called the four companies "the most urgent set of targets."

He and Hubbard both said a broader approach to antitrust reform beyond tech should come next from the House, after the tech package.

"I don't think they're mutually exclusive," Petros said. "In fact, Congress should do both."


How GM plans to make its ambitious EV goals reality

The automaker's chief sustainability officer is optimistic that GM is well-positioned to rapidly scale up the EV side of its business.

"I think everything that’s been put in place to support the transition will be a real positive for the industry and for the country."

Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Automakers are on the cusp of an entirely new era.

The transition to electric vehicles is quickly becoming more than just theoretical: More models are coming onto the scene every day. This week, the Inflation Reduction Act was signed into law, enshrining a new structure for EV tax credits and offering a boost to domestic critical mineral mining. The transition isn’t coming a moment too soon, given that the transportation sector makes up the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

As management teams at financial institutions look for best practices to make part of their regular toolkit, they are reaching most for the ones that increase the speed and reduce the risk of large-scale change.

That forward-thinking approach can lead financial institutions to leverage AI technology, which can help give decision-makers trusted tools to solve integral challenges vital to the health of the business. One of the leading providers of AI and machine-learning software, DataRobot continues to attract clients in financial services who want to de-risk their AI investments and rapidly scale AI to almost every part of their operations, resulting in improved productivity and higher customer satisfaction.

Keep Reading Show less
David Silverberg
David Silverberg is a Toronto-based freelance journalist, editor and writing coach. He writes for The Washington Post, BBC News, Business Insider, The Toronto Star, New Scientist, Fodor's, and several alumni magazines. He also writes for brands such as 23andme, Shopify and Bold Commerce. He has served as editor of B2B News Network, Canada's only B2B news magazine, and Digital Journal, a leading pioneer in citizen journalism. Find more about him at www.davidsilverberg.ca

How Embracer Group bought ‘Lord of the Rings’ rights for a bargain

The Swedish holding company, known best for its gaming acquisitions, bought the rights to “The Lord of the Rings.” But the deal is much more complicated than it seems.

Who really owns LOTR's rights?

Photo: New Line/WireImage

A new stakeholder has entered the complex licensing web of “The Lord of the Rings,” and the landmark deal has further complicated the already messy media empire surrounding author J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic.

The buyer, the acquisition-hungry Swedish gaming conglomerate known as Embracer Group, has purchased Middle-earth Enterprises, and with it the associated film, video game, board game, merchandise, theater production and theme park rights to the core LOTR book trilogy and “The Hobbit'' from its previous owner, The Saul Zaentz Company. Formerly Tolkien Enterprises, Zaentz’s holding group has held onto the rights since purchasing them from United Artists in 1976. (Tolkien initially sold them to UA in 1969, four years before his death.)

Keep Reading Show less
Nick Statt

Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.


Upstart has a new plan to sell Wall Street on its loans

The AI-powered lender will hold some loans on its balance sheet as it seeks partners for long-term capital.

Despite the current struggles, Upstart views the marketplace model as the best way to write to keep its loan business growing.

Photo: Upstart

After a revenue drop its CEO called “unacceptable,” the leadership at fintech lender Upstart is making a bet on the strength of its ability to underwrite loans with AI.

The San Mateo company is planning to leave some loans on its balance sheet that investors do not want to buy, as concerns about the economy shift Wall Street away from backing riskier consumer debt. Rather than pull back on its lending in response, the company said it will hold some loans as it seeks longer-term capital partners.

Keep Reading Show less
Ryan Deffenbaugh
Ryan Deffenbaugh is a reporter at Protocol focused on fintech. Before joining Protocol, he reported on New York's technology industry for Crain's New York Business. He is based in New York and can be reached at rdeffenbaugh@protocol.com.

Does your boss sound a little funny? It might be an audio deepfake

Voice deepfake attacks against enterprises, often aimed at tricking corporate employees into transferring money to the attackers, are on the rise. And at least in some cases, they’re succeeding.

Audio deepfakes are a new spin on the impersonation tactics that have long been used in social engineering and phishing attacks, but most people aren’t trained to disbelieve their ears.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

As a cyberattack investigator, Nick Giacopuzzi’s work now includes responding to growing attacks against businesses that involve deepfaked voices — and has ultimately left him convinced that in today's world, "we need to question everything."

In particular, Giacopuzzi has investigated multiple incidents where an attacker deployed fabricated audio, created with the help of AI, that purported to be an executive or a manager at a company. You can guess how it went: The fake boss asked an employee to urgently transfer funds. And in some cases, it’s worked, he said.

Keep Reading Show less
Kyle Alspach

Kyle Alspach ( @KyleAlspach) is a senior reporter at Protocol, focused on cybersecurity. He has covered the tech industry since 2010 for outlets including VentureBeat, CRN and the Boston Globe. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at kalspach@protocol.com.

Latest Stories