If passed, the antitrust overhaul package aimed at Big Tech unveiled in Congress could have far-reaching consequences for how people use the internet as well as America’s largest and most successful corporations.
The five bills, which are scheduled for a committee vote on Wednesday, could pave the way for the reorganization or breakup of internet behemoths like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon, as well as reshaping the entire internet ecosystem.
The measures would prohibit tech behemoths from operating a platform for third parties while also providing competing services on those platforms, dealing a major blow to companies like Apple and Amazon.
Legislators are also attempting to prohibit tech companies from prioritizing their own products or services, with Google clearly in mind. Another requirement would be data “portability” and “interoperability,” which would make it easier for people to leave Facebook while retaining their data and contacts.
Under the package, the largest tech firms would also be prohibited from acquiring competitors, and funds for antitrust enforcement would be increased. According to Fiona Scott Morton, a Yale University professor and former US official who has written extensively on Big Tech, the legislation is the result of antitrust enforcement in the US and elsewhere failing to make a dent in major technology firms’ dominance.
If the bills are passed, Apple may be forced to sell or shut down its music service in order to avoid discriminating against competitors such as Spotify. A requirement for interoperability “would be very significant for consumers because it would allow people to join social networks other than Facebook and (Facebook-owned) Instagram and stay in touch with their friends,” Morton said. The package comes amid signs that Washington is taking a more aggressive stance against dominant tech firms, such as President Joe Biden’s nomination of Lina Khan, a prominent proponent of breaking up Big Tech, to head the Federal Trade Commission, one of the agencies charged with antitrust enforcement.
The House Judiciary Committee has scheduled a vote on the package for Wednesday, which has some Republican support in addition to Democratic leadership, indicating that it is likely to pass in the full House of Representatives. The Senate’s fate is less certain.
The measures are the result of a 16-month investigation in the House led by antitrust subcommittee chairman David Cicilline, who concluded that tech behemoths were abusing their dominant positions and wielding too much economic power. According to Christopher Sagers, a professor of antitrust law at Cleveland State University, the package represents a radical approach to dealing with the growing power of tech firms.
According to Sagers, the bills “would make the platforms operate more like airlines or utility companies, which have to provide their services to anyone who wants them and not give anyone (or themselves) discriminatory advantages.”
“I’m not sure how Apple could continue to sell its own mobile software, for example, if iOS devices or the App Store were labeled as ‘covered platforms,’ and there could be ramifications for products like Amazon Prime, Google Maps, books digitized in the Google Books project, and who knows what else.”
However, Sagers believes the impact will be minimal in the long run because “markets rearrange themselves and new competitors emerge to replace them…But it is to say that these laws appear risky, and I find their consequences difficult to predict.” Other analysts issued stark warnings about the unintended consequences of upending the massively successful companies on which many consumers rely in their daily lives.
According to Iain Murray, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the measure could force Apple to close its App Store, ship “blank phones” with no apps, or spin off its phone division.
According to Aurelien Portuese of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank that frequently reflects industry views, the legislation is similar to Europe’s Digital Markets Act and is likely to “distort” competition.
According to Portuese, the legislation comes amid a wave of resentment toward Big Tech, but it may ultimately harm consumers by allowing less efficient firms to gain a competitive advantage.
According to Futurum Research analyst Olivier Blanchard in a blog post, the legislative package “reveals a profound lack of practical understanding of how the tech industry operates, and needs to operate, in order to remain competitive, relevant, profitable, and innovative.”