The clock is running out on antitrust bill targeting Big Tech

The clock is running out on antitrust bill targeting Big Tech

WASHINGTON — Critics of the nation’s biggest technology companies labeled in recent months “Hot Antitrust Summer” because they hoped that Congress would vote on new rules for Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook.

The legislation’s chances of passing before Labor Day instead melted away. The Senate is expected to take up one last important piece of business before the August recess, debating and voting on the Democrats’ major climate, tax and health package.

The failure to secure a vote is a setback for politicians, activists and regulators who believe Big Tech has too much control over commerce, communications and culture. After Labor Day, Washington will focus much of its attention on the midterm elections rather than major legislation. And if the Republicans regain the majority in Congress, the regulations have far less chance of being taken up.

“One of the senators actually said to me, ‘Maybe you’re just ahead of your time,'” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota and the main driver of the legislation, said in an interview. “And I told them, ‘Yes, but being ahead of your time doesn’t mean your time hasn’t come.’ And at some point your time will come.”

Followers of Ms. Klobuchar’s bill, called the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, argues that a national update to antitrust laws would allow smaller businesses to thrive by reining in big tech companies. The bill will prevent the companies from prioritizing their own services over those of their competitors. So, for example, Amazon couldn’t show its own Amazon Basics batteries until they were made by Duracell, and Google might have to put its own restaurant reviews alongside sites like Yelp in its search results.

The bill’s supporters cheered in May when Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader, said privately that he would put it up for a vote in early summer. It was approved by the Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support, and Ms. Klobuchar and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, her primary Republican co-sponsor, said they had the votes to pass the legislation if the full Senate voted on it.

The technology companies poured tens of millions of dollars into lobbying against the bill. Groups funded by the companies aired ads in swing states, saying the legislation was ill-advised at a time of rampant inflation. The CEOs of Google, Apple and Amazon all personally lobbied against the bill.

The industry also argued that it could have unintended consequences for online speech, as the bill could be interpreted as limiting how much these companies can moderate content, including hateful posts. Supporters of the bill say their concerns are unfounded, but four Democratic senators asked in June to amend the bill to ensure it was not misinterpreted.

Supporters of the bill have tried to keep pressuring Schumer to bring it up for a vote, highlighting the work his children have done for the big tech companies.

They argued that if lawmakers had to vote on the bill, it would pass. But last month at a fundraiser, Schumer said he didn’t think the measure had 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. And he said he wouldn’t put it on the floor until he had a better feeling it could pass, said a person with knowledge of his comments, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the discussion was private. Mr. Schumer’s comments were first reported by Bloomberg.

“All I can tell you is that Klobuchar was very disappointed when she was led to believe that it was going to be taken up in this time frame and it hasn’t been taken up and we don’t have a lot of time between now and the election,” said Mr. Grassley in an interview.

Other priorities in the Senate such as the climate, energy and tax package brokered between Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, and Mr. Schumer have also sidelined antitrust issues. Before the surprise reconciliation deal on that bill, slow work on a veterans health care bill, a sweeping gun control measure and a chip manufacturing bill dominated the legislative calendar.

Some of the bill’s co-sponsors said the bill was a low priority for them as they prepared to leave Capitol Hill for the month. Sen. Mazie Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii, said she was focusing on legislation being debated before the August recess.

Klobuchar said she had spoken with Schumer and discussed putting the bill up for a vote in the fall.

“I think he’s committed to working on this and getting this through,” she said. There is also a similar proposal in the House of Representatives that has bipartisan support.

A Schumer spokesman said in a statement that the majority leader is “working with Senator Klobuchar and other supporters to gather the necessary votes and plans to bring it to a vote.”

Sarah Miller, executive director of the liberal American Economic Liberties Project, said that if efforts to pass a new antitrust law in Washington were to break down, it would only give the role to agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission, which sued to block Meta’s acquisition of a virtual reality company last month, and state lawmakers more important to reining in Big Tech.

“Thankfully, there’s not just one sheriff in town,” she said, “although I think the ability of Congress to directly promote fairness and competition in digital markets will continue to be an important project.”

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