Tech giants Google, Amazon and Apple are likely to get a reprieve in Congress this year from efforts to rein in some of the companies’ most controversial and allegedly anti-competitive business practices — even though the legislation has typically enjoyed broad bipartisan support.
The new Republican leadership in the U.S. House doesn’t appear to have the appetite to impose tougher antitrust rules on the tech giants to ensure they don’t abuse their dominant position in the market to block smaller rivals, Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., the former the top Republican on the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust issues, said in an interview.
The GOP also doesn’t want to give the Biden administration more power and resources, House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, told CNBC in a separate interview.
“I don’t think Speaker McCarthy, Chairman Jordan or Chairman Massie are advocates for the antitrust, pro-competition solution to the Big Tech problem,” Buck said, referring to Jordan, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Thomas Massie, who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust. Although Buck was next in line to chair the panel as ranking Republican in the previous Congress, Jordan, R-Ohio, selected Massie, R-Ky., to lead the subcommittee this Congress instead.
Buck, who has been a vocal critic of the tech giants for years, says tighter antitrust regulations would help create a fairer marketplace for smaller tech firms competing against Amazon, Google, Facebook and other Big Tech companies, which have been accused of using their platforms to promote their own proprietary products or services above competitors.
When asked whether his campaign to rein in the tech giants through antitrust and his co-sponsoring of bills with Democrats may be what cost him the chairmanship of the antitrust panel, Buck said, “Nobody ever said that to me but I think it’s a fair conclusion to draw.”
Jordan said GOP leaders restructured the committee with lawmakers who want to curb what they see as excessive regulations by the Biden administration, including the Federal Trade Commission, rather than on strengthening oversight of the industry.
“We just felt that Thomas Massie was a good fit with how we were structuring the Judiciary committee. We’re thinking about that we don’t want to give any more power to those agencies,” Jordan told CNBC in an interview. “There’s no one more focused on limiting the size and scope of government than Thomas Massie.”
While the tech companies may be spared costly new regulations that threatened to break them apart — for now — the industry may not be totally safe from scrutiny on Capitol Hill. House Republican leaders want to look into whether tech firms have been censoring conservative voices, according to a tech industry ally of McCarthy’s who declined to be named to speak freely about private conversations with GOP leadership.
Jordan has already subpoenaed the CEOs of Google parent Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta and Microsoft, demanding communications between the companies and the U.S. government to “understand how and to what extent the Executive Branch coerced and colluded with companies and other intermediaries to censor speech.”
Jordan has repeatedly questioned the usefulness of antitrust bills over the years, preferring to focus on what he views as censorship of conservative voices by the major tech platforms. In June 2021, during a 23-hour markup of a package of antitrust bills supported by Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., and Buck, Jordan said the legislation didn’t do enough to address those censorship concerns.
Buck, meanwhile, previously told CNBC that problems with bias on platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are just a “symptom of the overall problem” of inadequate competition online. That’s because there’s a few dominant companies that run the largest platforms.
Representatives for Meta and Microsoft referred CNBC to previous statements where they said they were cooperating with Jordan’s subpoena. All the other tech giants mentioned in this article didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Last year, advocates for reforming antitrust laws were optimistic about the chances of passing major legislation that would strengthen competition rules for online shopping platforms, mobile apps and other relatively new technologies. The leading proposal at the time was the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, championed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., chair of the Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, then ranking member on the full committee. Though it passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee and similar legislation advanced out of the House Judiciary Committee, it didn’t get to the floor of either chamber for a vote.
An antitrust bill Buck introduced in May drew bipartisan support from opposite ends of the political spectrum: Reps. PramilaJayapal, D-Wash., and Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., among others. That legislation, which would have barred large digital ad platforms like Google from owning multiple parts of the system to buy and sell such ads, may still have a chance of passing in this Congress, Buck says.
Tech companies spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying the U.S. government over the years. Apple, which was the target of two major bills last year, spent more on lobbying in the first quarter of 2022 than any other quarter, spending $2.5 million in that period and $9.4 million on lobbying throughout the year — a 44% increase compared with its spending in 2021.
Proponents of the bills held out hope after the August recess that they might still have a chance at the end of the two-year congressional session last fall when lawmakers often jam through popular proposals. But that period came and went without any action from Congress on the biggest antitrust bills. Congress did pass a bill to help increase funding to the enforcement agencies and another empowering state AGs to pick the district where they want to keep their antitrust lawsuits.
Senate takes lead
As for Buck, he’s looking for the Senate to first pass any antitrust legislation this Congress so it can gain momentum in the House.
He may have to do it without one of his close allies on antitrust issues, Cicilline, who chaired the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee during its investigation of Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook. The Democrat is set to leave Congress later this year to become president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.
One of the bills Buck said he is watching carefully is the Competition and Transparency in Digital Advertising Act, that was introduced last Congress and sponsored in the Senate by Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, among others. If passed and signed into law, Google, Facebook and Amazon could be forced to sell off key pieces of their advertising business. Buck sponsored an identical companion bill in the House.
When asked how he plans to take on Big Tech since he’s not running the subcommittee, Buck responded: “Well, that’s a great question and if you have any answers to that I would appreciate knowing,” he said. “I’m not the chairman of the subcommittee, I’m not the chairman of the full committee. But I know that the Senate is introducing bills. And we will introduce bills on the House side.”