May 20, 2022
Believe it or not, Republicans and Democrats in Congress have spent the past year doing the dirty work on tech legislation, cobbling together detailed proposals and building rare bipartisan coalitions.
The big remaining question: Will congressional leadership get any legislation over the finish line?
In an era of deep partisan division on Capitol Hill, few topics seem to unite the GOP and Democrats right now quite as much as Big Tech. To wit, members of Congress have put forward three pieces of meaningful legislation with strong support on both sides of the aisle.
Yet key players on tech regulation remain nervous about the prospects of any legislation getting a hearing in the full House and Senate before the August recess, at which point any reform is likely to die. The post-recess months are expected to get eaten up by midterm elections, and Republican congressional leadership isn’t expected to prioritize the bills if it moves into the majority next year.
While Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have professed support for more tech regulation, neither has moved with much urgency to push bills onto President Joe Biden’s desk.
Over the past several months, Congress’ rank-and-file have set aside partisan differences to advance tech reform.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 16-6 in January to advance a bill, known as the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, that stops large tech companies from pushing their own products ahead of third-party competitors on their platforms. (An example: Amazon listing its private label brand higher on its search ranking.)
The same committee voted 20-2 in February to move the Open App Markets Act, which would force Apple and Google to allow third-party payment processors to operate within their respective app stores and give users the option to download third-party apps onto the two companies’ operating systems.
The latest example of unexpected bipartisanship came Thursday, when some strange congressional bedfellows introduced companion bills that would take a sledgehammer to Google’s digital ad business. The group included Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah; Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.; Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.
As The Wall Street Journal reported, the proposal would ban companies with more than $20 billion in annual online ad sales from taking part in more than one side of the digital ad ecosystem—essentially forcing Google to break up and sell parts of its $147 billion ad business.
All three pieces of legislation aim to reduce the enormous power of Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, and Meta—all of which are lobbying hard against the bills. Tech giants argue the various pieces of legislation will harm consumer privacy, make digital products less secure, hurt small businesses, and damage the online experience.
Despite the committee-level success, the self-preferencing and app bills haven’t been put on either chambers’ legislative calendar. The Google bill likely will have to wait until after the recess, owing to its late introduction.
In an encouraging sign for tech reformers, Axios reported Thursday that Schumer intends to put the American Innovation and Choice Online Act up for a vote “by early summer.” Schumer also has signaled support for the Open Markets App Act.
But as TIME reported last month, some elected officials and congressional aides question Schumer’s stomach for ticking off Silicon Valley. They also noted that bigger hurdles await in the House, where geography might play a major factor.
“One obstacle standing in the way is opposition from the California delegation, much of which represents Silicon Valley,” Time’s Eric Cortellessa reported. “Both House leaders, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, are also from the state, which boasts the world’s fifth largest economy, driven largely by the tech sector.”
Congress’ leading tech opponents continue to put a positive spin on their legislative prospects. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., told Axios earlier this month that he’s “confident we’ll get something done before the summer recess.” Blumenthal said Congress still has a “real opportunity to pass several strong, smart antitrust bills before the end of the year,” per a Washington Post report in late April.
If the bills are going to become law, the ball’s now in the leadership’s court.
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