Big Tech just got one step closer to squashing key US antitrust bill

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Big Tech just got one step closer to squashing key US antitrust bill

Sponsors of a key bipartisan antitrust bill have tried for months to secure a Senate vote and potentially pass “the first major bill on technology competition” to come before the Senate “since the dawn of the Internet.”

Now, The Wall Street Journal reports, that bill will remain “in limbo” as Congress has failed to schedule a vote before its recess. This could signify that Big Tech companies will prevail—through intense lobbying and criticism—and prevent the bill from passing a Senate floor vote. In just one week this summer, one industry group reportedly spent $22 million in ads against the bill.

The bill is controversial because it targets large companies like Amazon, Alphabet, Meta, and Apple. It stops them from self-preferencing business practices, like promoting their products above others or forcing smaller businesses to buy ad space to compete. Critics, like Google, say the law could threaten everything from the quality of online services to national security, but supporters, like bill co-sponsor Representative David Cicilline (D-RI), say much of the criticism boils down to “lies coming from Big Tech.”

Cicilline, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Meta did not immediately respond to Ars’ requests for comment. The tech companies “either declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests for comment” from WSJ.

Sponsors continue to combat any misinformation on the Hill, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D.-NY) said supporters are actively working on securing Senate votes. Cicilline said Big Tech has not won yet. “We continue to have very strong bipartisan support in both chambers, and the votes to pass it in both chambers,” Cicilline said. “It’s really just a matter of getting it on the calendar.”

Among the bill’s opponents influencing Congress to delay the vote is the Computer & Communications Industry Association, which represents tech companies like Amazon, Alphabet, and Meta. CCIA President Matt Schruers tells Ars that his team has been “regularly talking to staffers and members of Congress.” He said that the bill was “never ready for prime time” and “as more members understand the details and the problems it would create for privacy, security, and the economy, they have reservations about supporting it in a floor vote.”

The independent non-partisan policy institute the Center for American Progress declined to comment, but previously conducted a lengthy analysis of both sides of this debate. One of the most publicized issues that critics have with the bill is that it could potentially limit Big Tech companies’ abilities to moderate content without discrimination claims. The idea is that the companies would be so afraid of being sued that they would let every bit of offensive content fly on their platforms.

Wired called the argument “weak,” but the bill’s sponsors—who have been continually willing to engage critics and amend the bill to acknowledge legitimate concerns—are stuck entertaining the argument. WSJ reported that content moderation amendments are being considered, but if the sponsors strike the content moderation part of the bill, they risk losing Republican votes. Those votes will be vital in passing the law and depend on the bill’s explicit protections against discriminatory content moderation, a popular conservative rallying point right now.

For now, supporters of the antitrust bill remain optimistic. They can only hope that Schumer will stick to a reported plan to vote on the American Innovation and Choice Online Act when Congress reconvenes this fall. However, Schumer also planned to hold a vote early this summer, which never happened. If he fails to schedule the vote again, mid-term elections could tip control of Congress to Republicans and possibly doom the bill.

Another bill co-sponsor, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), said that further delays in regulating Big Tech would be bad for the economy and customers. The Department of Justice, Department of Commerce, and the Biden administration have expressed support for the bill. There’s some confidence that the bipartisan support it currently enjoys will save it from being squashed.

If passed, the law would be enacted immediately, with enforcement guidelines from DOJ and the Federal Trade Commission written within a year. After that, the maximum penalty that Big Tech companies could expect to pay is 15 percent of its total US revenue for the period of the violation. Legal experts say that the law would probably never be litigated because very few companies would take the risk of not complying and potentially being sued. If passed, the law would effectively mean the end of America trusting Big Tech to regulate itself—or ceding regulatory power to the European Union.

“Big Tech companies want to protect the status quo, which allows them to expand their influence over our decisions, whether you’re a small businessperson or a consumer,” Grassley said. “If we want action, we need a Senate vote and we need that Senate vote to be soon.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) told Ars that she believes the bill is still on track. “It’s past time we put common sense rules of the road in place for big tech platforms,” Klobuchar said. “Despite more than $100 million being spent against us on ads and the thousands of lobbyists and lawyers fighting this bill, we still have broad support. I have had constructive conversations with Senator Schumer and other colleagues about timing and I am hopeful that when we return in the fall we will vote on this bipartisan legislation.”

Sen. Schumer and Sen. Grassley did not immediately respond to Ars’ requests for comment.