The bill, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, has become the epicenter of a massive power struggle between Washington and Silicon Valley. But it’s also one of only a few antitrust proposals that may survive the tussle and become law.
The campaign kicked off in earnest in June 2019, when House lawmakers launched a sweeping probe into potential anti-competitive conduct in the tech sector that would stretch over 16 months, producing a 450-page tome of findings and a series of recommendations.
Lawmakers turned those into a package of bills that combined would block the tech giants from favoring their own goods, scooping up budding rivals and operating conflicting lines of business, as well as forcing them to make their services interoperable with competing products. Since then, lawmakers have also targeted Google and Apple’s grip on their app stores with legislation.
This week, over 50 advocacy and public interest groups urged congressional leadership in a letter shared exclusively with The Technology 202 to “vote as soon as possible” on the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which prohibits self-preferencing by large tech companies, and the Open App Markets Act, which targets Google and Apple’s app stores.
“We believe that these carefully crafted bills will bring urgently needed change and accountability to the Big Tech companies,” wrote the groups, which include the Economic Security Project, Public Knowledge and Consumer Reports.
But the app store proposal faces extra obstacles.
While both cleared key hurdles in the Senate with bipartisan support, only the self-preferencing bill has been marked up in the House, and one of the app store bill’s lead sponsors recently suggested it couldn’t pass before the August recess, after which activity could slow to a crawl.
Lawmakers have also introduced bills to boost funding for regulators by raising merger filing fees and to make it harder for tech companies to move cases to courts seen as more favorable, but those measures are seen as far less consequential and controversial.
There’s also growing support for the self-preferencing bill within the Biden administration, which could give it a leg up in negotiations.
Last month, the Justice Department endorsed the bill, led by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Ken Buck (R-Colo.), saying in a letter it “has the potential to have a positive effect on dynamism in digital markets going forward.”
On Wednesday, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said she and the department support the bill and “concur with the aim of the legislation,” the first time she’s endorsed the proposal. Raimondo had previously faced criticism from progressives for criticizing European tech bills.
Both bills, which drew broad support during their Senate markups, could still advance, though.
“Congress has a real opportunity to pass several strong, smart antitrust bills before the end of this year," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who is leading the app store bill and co-sponsoring the self-preferencing bill.
Notably absent from many of these statements and letters is any mention of the other bills House lawmakers advanced last year, including proposals targeting tech mergers and conflicts of interest and a bill to boost interoperability.
The bill to rein in acquisitions by the tech giants has bipartisan support in both chambers, but it’s seen as more of a long shot and has yet to be marked up in the Senate, where time to legislate ahead of the midterms is running low. The bill targeting conflicts of interest, viewed as the most aggressive proposal pursued by top lawmakers, doesn’t have a Senate counterpart yet.
Valeria Rivadeneira, a spokesperson for Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), said he still intends to reintroduce the interoperability bill this Congress and that he “expects to be joined by a number of colleagues from both sides of the aisle,” including Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). Some Democrats expressed reservations about working with Hawley after the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Blumenthal also pointed to the bill as one that could pass this year.
But with time ticking away, the chances of those bills gaining significant traction ahead of the midterms are dwindling. What started as a sweeping campaign to rein in the tech giants is now winnowing down into a fierce battle largely over one or two proposals.
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The White House is giving its global Internet coalition another go
The Biden administration on Thursday announced the launch of the “Declaration for the Future of the Internet,” a nonbinding pledge struck with global allies to promote an open Internet that reinforces democracy, human rights and innovation. The move arrives months after the White House tabled plans to launch an international Internet alliance amid concerns from civil society groups and some administration officials.
More than 55 countries have signed on to the declaration, one of the Biden administration’s most visible efforts to unite countries around a shared vision for the Internet. The pledge has nearly two dozen “principles” that include the promotion of online safety; refraining from using algorithms or the Internet to violate human rights; and support for net neutrality, the idea that content on the Internet shouldn’t be treated differently by service providers.
But some conspicuous names are missing from the declaration’s list of signatories, including China and Russia. On a call with reporters, a senior administration official who declined to speak on the record criticized Russia and its online crackdown in the wake of the war in Ukraine, calling it “one of the leaders in a dangerous new model of Internet policy,” along with China. When asked about outreach to China or Russia, a senior administration official declined to comment on “specific diplomatic discussions.”
Countries representing more than half of the world’s population, including many of the world’s most populous nations, also haven’t yet signed on, such as India, Indonesia and Brazil. “The declaration remains open” and the Biden administration is “confident that like-minded countries around the world will sign up,” an official said.
The launch comes nearly five months after the Biden administration delayed the launch of what it was calling the “Alliance for the Future of the Internet,” which was set to launch on the sidelines of Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” in December. But it faced internal strife when civil society groups criticized the apparent redundancy of creating a new forum for hashing out Internet freedom issues when other avenues for pursuing them exist, according to Protocol. Some government officials also described a hurried process to create the alliance that appeared to sidestep interagency reviews, Protocol reported.
A senior administration official acknowledged the delay but said it “actually helped us quite a bit.” They added, “I think the underlying thinking is similar, but we envisioned this declaration as a useful tool for multiple other fora, and made it just very clear, I think, that this works in harmony with, and as a complement to, existing fora.”
Musk's criticism of Twitter executives is prompting online attacks
In the days since Tesla chief executive Elon Musk struck a deal to buy Twitter, he's been using his account on the site to elevate conservative criticisms of its top executives, Cat Zakrzewski, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Faiz Siddiqui report. The tweets by Musk, who has more than 86 million followers, are roiling a workforce that is uneasy about how he'll balance his embrace of free speech and abrasive social media style with his stewardship of the company.
Musk's tweets have the power to unleash mobs against his targets, who often have much lower profiles. “Musk’s power to unleash his followers in these ways has alarmed some Twitter workers, who expressed concerns at a company town hall on Monday and in interviews about the possibility of being mentioned in tweets by their future boss,” my colleagues write. “It is unusual for an incoming owner to make any public comment about his future employees, much less publicly criticize their performance or past decisions.”
Twitter declined to comment. Musk didn't respond to a request for comment.
Rant and rave
Musk even criticized the name of former president Donald Trump's social media network, Truth Social, and floated another name idea. The Atlantic Council Digital Forensic Research Lab's Emerson T. Brooking:
CNBC's Alex Sherman:
Musk should also change Twitter to “Musket” (also the name of my high school newspaper)— Alex Sherman (@sherman4949) April 27, 2022
Others, like our colleague Mike DeBonis, recalled that this idea had been floated before:
Inside the industry
- Nina Jankowicz is leading the Department of Homeland Security’s new Disinformation Governance Board as its executive director. Jankowicz was previously a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center.