The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Big Tech antitrust bills pass first major hurdle in House even as opposition grows

The House Judiciary Committee debated the bills in a session that lasted a total of 29 hours

Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) announced the antitrust bill package earlier this month. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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In a marathon markup meeting that lasted 29 hours, the House Judiciary Committee approved all six of the bills in a sweeping antitrust package that takes aim at Big Tech and attempts to reel in the giants’ power.

But the lengthy debate that began Wednesday and did not finish till Thursday afternoon illuminated the fissures within both parties as tech companies continue lobbying lawmakers, and some California delegates — whose districts encompass many tech headquarters — voiced skepticism.

The committee advanced the sixth bill — the one with perhaps the broadest implications for tech giants — Thursday afternoon in a tight 21 to 20 vote. Two Republicans joined those voting to advance the bill, while four Democrats were opposed.

The bills, which have some bipartisan support, target the far-reaching power of Big Tech, especially Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. The committee spent the first several hours of the hearing debating the two least controversial bills — a measure that would update merger filing fees, and another that deals with venues for antitrust suits brought by state attorneys general.

The bills with more substantial changes passed throughout the night, including a bill to prevent tech giants from buying rising competitors; one to prohibit big tech companies from giving their own products and services preference over those from competitors; and another to make it easier to use products from different tech companies together.

The last bill, passed Thursday afternoon, would enable federal regulators to sue to break up large tech companies when their role as operator of a platform presents an “irreconcilable conflict of interest” in their other lines of business. That could spell trouble especially for Amazon — which operates a major e-commerce marketplace where it also competes as a seller of its own goods — and potentially for Google — which ranks videos in its search engine while also running its own major video service, YouTube. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Big Tech is making a full-court press in lobbying lawmakers to defeat the bills, according to reporting in Gizmodo and the New York Times. The push is made clear in public calls from industry trade organizations and the companies themselves.

The package has the support of Judiciary antitrust subcommittee chairman David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), who led an exhaustive House investigation into big tech companies last year that preceded the bills.

“Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google are gatekeepers to the online economy,” Cicilline said early in the committee markup Wednesday. “They bury or buy rivals and abuse their monopoly powers — conduct that is harmful to consumers, competition, innovation and our democracy.” He is supported by a number of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, though the parties are not consistent in their support.

California representatives from both parties, including Zoe Lofgren (D), Darrell Issa (R), Eric Swalwell (D), Tom McClintock (R) and Lou Correa (D), opposed elements of the package. “The package poses harm to American consumers and the U.S. economy and left Members on both sides of the aisle with basic questions that have yet to be answered,” they wrote in a joint statement after the vote.

“In my district, small businesses depend on services provided by these tech companies,” Correa added in a statement. “Amazon has opened a distribution center and is looking to open a few more. These are good-paying jobs with benefits.”

Democrats Lofgren, Correa, Swalwell and Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.) opposed advancing the final bill. Two Republicans, Ken Buck (R-Colo.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) voted to move the bill forward.

Jane Chung of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Public Citizen, which supports the antitrust package, said she was “disappointed” by the opposition of the California Democrats, which she attributed in part to the influence of the tech giants in their districts. “This is the result of over a decade of relationship-building, campaign contributions, the lobbying revolving door,” she said.

During debate of the final bill, Lofgren raised concerns about the stability of tech workers’ jobs if it should pass.

“This bill would essentially, metaphorically, take a grenade and just roll it into the tech economy and just blow it up, and see what happens,” she said. “I think that’s unreasonable, I think it’s unnecessary and I think it could lead to severe adverse consequences for Americans who live in my district, who are employed in the tech sector.”

Later in the hearing, the bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash), who also represents a tech-heavy district, threw the words back at Lofgren.

“I would say the grenade that is being thrown right now is being thrown at small businesses,” she said.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who often spars with Democrats but agrees on a Big Tech crackdown, also urged lawmakers to advance the final bill, which he called the package’s “foundation.”

“This bill is the big enchilada,” he said.

Other conservatives want to curtail big tech’s power, just not in the same way. The day before the markup, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) partnered with former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows on an opinion piece for Fox News calling for Republicans to oppose the bills.

“These Democrat bills will only make things worse,” they wrote. “If you think Big Tech is bad now, just wait until Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google are working in collusion with Big Government.”

Democrats have approached antitrust legislation by focusing on tech companies’ growing economic concentration, while Republicans have focused on their claims that tech companies have stifled conservative voices online.

Tech companies and many trade organizations representing the industry have warned against passing the bills.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) confirmed Apple CEO Tim Cook called her to say the bills would harm innovation. Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the call.

Apple also issued a report Wednesday morning outlining what it sees as the perils of letting consumers “sideload” apps, a process enabling apps to be downloaded on iOS devices without going through the company’s App Store. Critics have argued that Apple’s control of the App Store, and especially its practice of taking a cut of in-app purchases, threatens smaller competitors.

Similarly, Amazon released a statement before the markup from vice president of public policy Brian Huseman saying the bills “would have significant negative effects on the hundreds of thousands of American small- and medium-sized businesses that sell in our store.”

Google’s vice president of government affairs, Mark Isakowitz, said the bills raise privacy concerns and “damage the way small businesses connect with consumers.” And Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said antitrust bills should “not punish successful American companies.”

Some of the onslaught of lobbying has been pretty clumsy, said a staffer to a Democratic member of the committee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

“For one thing, I think the clearer the tech opposition to these bills, the easier it has been to make the case that they are exactly what we need,” the staffer said.

Will Oremus and Tyler Pager contributed to this report.