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The Technology 202: Google and Apple face a new threat in the Senate. The House is set to follow.

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with Aaron Schaffer

At a Senate hearing in April, lawmakers had a clear message for Apple and Google: They were fed up with hearing about the companies’ allegedly abusive behavior toward developers who rely on their app stores. Now they were ready to turn those grievances into legislative action.

“Although we can and should use our existing antitrust laws to address these issues, we can also strengthen our laws,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who convened the session.

Senators put those plans in motion Wednesday by unveiling a bruising new bill to rein in the tech giants’ powerful app stores. And it’s already picking up momentum across the Capitol.

The bipartisan legislation would deal a massive blow to Google and Apple by prohibiting them from giving their own apps preferential treatment or punishing developers that offer their apps for different pricing elsewhere, as well as ending requirements that app providers use an app store’s payment system. Critics say the companies use those tactics to enrich themselves while squeezing smaller competitors, as my colleague Cat Zakrzewski reported.

The legislation, led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and co-sponsored by Klobuchar and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), is perhaps the most direct and severe threat lodged on Capitol Hill against Google and Apple’s app stores to date. And it’s poised to become twofold.

Blumenthal told The Technology 202 he expects a counterpart measure to be introduced soon in the House. Aides for two House lawmakers confirmed the plans. 

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) is set to introduce a companion bill in the House, according to an aide, who was not authorized to speak on the record, and he’s in talks with Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) to co-lead it. Buck spokeswoman Allie Woodward confirmed the discussions.

Johnson grilled Apple CEO Tim Cook about the company’s treatment of app developers during a blockbuster House hearing in July 2020, which also featured testimony from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, then-Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Google CEO Sundar Pichai. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Buck, the top Republican on the House's antitrust panel, is “deeply concerned about Apple and Google’s gatekeeper power” and “commends Sen. Blackburn and Sen. Blumenthal for taking action,” Woodward said.

A show of bipartisan support in the House from key lawmakers such as Buck could boost the bill’s chances of gaining steam and eventually becoming law. But like other antitrust proposals, it will need to overcome fierce challenges from the industry and business-minded lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Buck has been the lead negotiator in the House’s broader efforts to rein in the alleged anti-competitive conduct of tech giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. 

Blumenthal said he sees the House’s antitrust efforts as complementary to his own, with both aimed at addressing the tech titans’ “brutal predatory control over innovation.”

“It's very complimentary in its purpose and goals, which is to lower costs for consumers and enable innovators to have access to markets,” he told The Technology 202 in an interview. “Those basic principles animate all of the House legislative proposals.”

The Senate legislation is notable in large part because of its backers: Klobuchar heads the Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel, and Blumenthal and Blackburn are the top lawmakers on the Senate Commerce Committee’s consumer protection panel. 

All three have led efforts to curtail the conduct of the tech industry’s biggest companies, and emerged as key negotiators willing to cut deals on bipartisan bills. 

The legislation was met with praise from several prominent app developers, including Epic, maker of the wildly popular Fortnite video game, which filed antitrust lawsuits against the companies. 

Corie Wright, vice president of public policy for Epic, said the bill’s introduction was “an important milestone in the continued fight for fairer digital platforms.” 

In response to the legislation’s unveiling, Apple said in a statement that the company's “focus is on maintaining an App Store where people can have confidence that every app must meet our rigorous guidelines and their privacy and security is protected.” Google declined to comment.

Epic’s case ignited a wave of scrutiny of Google and Apple’s handling of their app stores.

Now that’s being channeled into fresh legislative threats in Washington.

Our top tabs

A top U.S. regulator said the FTC should aggressively combat algorithmic harms and may need new powers to do so. 

Federal Trade Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter wrote in a paper published Wednesday that the commission should use a handful of tools “creatively to mitigate algorithmic harms.” Slaughter, who is a member of the FTC’s Democratic majority, also suggested a wide swath of legislative remedies that lawmakers could take up to hold major technology companies accountable for the biases of their algorithms and software. 

Slaughter raised the specter of an artificial intelligence moratorium in the paper, writing that there may be “certain applications of AI and algorithms that pose such a profound risk of injustice to vital life functions or opportunities that a moratorium might be appropriate and necessary.” Slaughter served as acting FTC chair until President Biden named Lina Khan to the permanent post.

YouTube rival Rumble is paying media personalities hundreds of thousands of dollars to first post their videos to the site. 

The company hopes that by signing influencers like former U.S. House member Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and firebrand journalist Glenn Greenwald, it will be able to bolster its image as the new home for people who claim to be censored by Big Tech, Drew Harwell reports. Rumble has refused to take down “medical misinformation,” including videos casting doubt on coronavirus vaccinations, drawing a contrast with video giant YouTube. 

Rumble’s online traffic has exploded in the past year, according to founder Chris Pavlovski and data from analytics firm Similarweb. Its traffic has outpaced other platforms popular among conservatives, but its traffic changes every day, signaling that it is dependent on trending events. 

A group of four labor unions asked regulators to block Amazon’s proposed purchase of MGM. 

The Strategic Organizing Center, which represents more than 4 million workers across four unions, told the FTC that the $8.45 billion acquisition would boost Amazon’s power in the streaming market, Motherboard’s Edward Ongweso Jr. reports. The acquisition has also has come under scrutiny from Congress, where Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel, has called for the Justice Department to investigate. 

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) 

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment from Motherboard. 

Groups that raised concerns about Verizon's purchase of TracFone say they're satisfied by the company's commitments.

The groups, which include Public Knowledge, are withdrawing the objections they raised to the Federal Communications Commission about the merger. Public Knowledge policy counsel Kathleen Burke called the commitments a “win for consumers” and said they “serve the public interest.” The announcement comes less than a month after five Democratic senators called on the FCC to “thoroughly review” the merger and seek commitments from the company.

Verizon made a handful of commitments in a new filing, including a pledge to continue to offer Lifeline, an FCC program that offers phone service to low-income consumers, for at least three years. The company also said it would offer 5G plans for TracFone customers.

“We’ve said all along that providing great service to value-conscious consumers, including Lifeline customers, is what this deal is all about, and today’s letter reflects that commitment,” Verizon spokesman Rich Young said in a statement. “We appreciate the efforts by Public Knowledge to help bring this to resolution, and we look forward to discussing these commitments with the FCC, so that we can bring the benefits of the transaction to value-conscious prepaid consumers as soon as possible.”

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  • The Senate Judiciary Committee discusses legislation to boost the power of state attorneys general to choose where antitrust lawsuits are heard at 9 a.m. today. 

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