By Jon Swartz
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday overwhelmingly passed antitrust legislation barring tech’s biggest platforms from favoring their products and services over competitors, taking aim at Apple Inc., Google parent Alphabet Inc. and Amazon.com Inc.
The American Innovation and Choice Online Act — which, for example, would prohibit Apple /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL +1.68% , Google /zigman2/quotes/202490156/composite GOOGL +1.85% /zigman2/quotes/205453964/composite GOOG +2.03% and Amazon /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN +3.98% from ranking their apps higher than rivals’ on their own mobile app stores — passed 16-6 in a bipartisan vote that amounts to an early victory for proponents of strict Big Tech regulation. The bill faces the steeper challenge of getting 60 senators to support it in its next legislative step.
“In recent years, Big Tech has taken on a larger and larger role in determining what Americans buy, hear, see and say online,” the bill’s co-author, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement. Lawmakers amended the bill Thursday, including a new provision designed to include large foreign-owned tech platforms such as the popular TikTok app owned by China’s ByteDance Ltd.
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The bipartisan bill — its other author is Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who chairs the antitrust subcommittee — sparked a heated scrum between antitrust advocates and tech’s largest companies, who deployed lobbyists and executives to Washington, D.C., to kill or water down the bill.
Even members of the committee were split on the impact of the bill. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said it was “difficult to see the justification for a bill that regulates the behavior of only a handful of companies while allowing everyone else to continue engaging in that exact same behavior.”
Consumer groups and supporters of antitrust tech legislation hailed the vote as a first step toward reining in the economic power and market dominance of a handful of tech giants that also includes Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB +2.90% and Microsoft Corp. /zigman2/quotes/207732364/composite MSFT +1.01% .
“Despite millions of lobbying dollars by monopolists spent to influence lawmakers, a bipartisan group of Senators just stated with a clear voice that Big Tech is too powerful,” Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, said in a statement.
“The bill will stop the largest online platforms from imposing their self-serving rules on markets and society,” Sumit Sharma, senior researcher for tech competition at Consumer Reports, said in a statement. “The bill will benefit consumers by making it easier to install, choose, and use alternative apps and online services. It will remove the roadblocks that the largest online platforms have put up to hinder innovation by competitors.”
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In the days leading up to Thursday’s vote, Apple, Google and Amazon stressed the dangers the bill would create for users’ data.
In public comments Tuesday, Apple and Google argued the bill would expose consumers to malware, ransomware, and scams, as well as impede small businesses that rely on large digital platforms to market and distribute their services.
Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, said in a statement that the legislation could jeopardize the company’s ability to offer Prime shipping benefits to sellers or allow them onto its platform at all.
Shares of Apple, Google and Amazon all closed lower in trading Thursday.
Still, small-business owners such as Marco Bellin, founder of Datacappy, a VPN and private browser, fear the deep pockets and expansive lobbying efforts of tech giants will water down the final bill. “Big Tech companies have tremendous influence over lawmakers due to their deep pockets and expansive lobbying efforts,” Bellin said. “Even if bills leave committees with good intentions, they get gutted before they’re presented for a full vote. [They] will not have the teeth needed to effectuate any real change.”