House Democrats propose antitrust overhaul to rein in big tech

House Democrats on Tuesday proposed an overhaul of U.S. laws that could make it easier to break up giant tech companies, deter them from getting bigger and prevent businesses like Amazon and Apple from competing in their own marketplaces against rivals.

A major revamp: The proposals by Democratic staffers on the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee would be the most significant changes to federal antitrust rules in decades. They are the culmination of a 16-month bipartisan investigation that drilled into the practices of Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon — released Tuesday in a 449-page tome just days or weeks before the Trump administration is expected to file an antitrust suit accusing Google of abusing its power in the search market.

But partisan disagreements over next steps may blunt the report’s immediate impact, despite a widespread desire to rein in Silicon Valley titans among both conservative and liberal lawmakers. Several of the committee’s Republicans, led by Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, endorsed some Democrat-backed proposals in a separate report unveiled Tuesday while warning that the majority’s more aggressive recommendations are “non-starters for conservatives.”

The investigation: The subcommittee issued Tuesday’s recommendations in a report that assailed the business practices of Silicon Valley’s most powerful companies, who lawmakers said have unfairly stifled competitors to the detriment of consumers. As part of the probe, lawmakers and staff have collected over a million documents, interviewed hundreds of witnesses and hauled in the companies’ CEOs to testify this summer.

Among other allegations, the panel investigated complaints that tech titans have trampled competitors by acquiring up-and-coming rivals and favoring their own products on the online storefronts they operate, such as Amazon’s Marketplace and Apple’s App Store.

“To put it simply, companies that once were scrappy, underdog startups that challenged the status quo have become the kinds of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons and railroad tycoons,” said Reps. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.), chairs of the full committee and subcommittee, in the report. “Although these firms have delivered clear benefits to society, the dominance of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google has come at a price.”

The proposals: The report calls for an array of changes, some of which boast bipartisan support while others have only Democratic backing.

Among them are Democratic proposals to ban major tech platforms from acquiring future startups or potential rivals and barring them from both owning marketplaces — such as Amazon’s sprawling e-commerce hub — and selling competing products on them.

The report also calls on Congress to grant federal antitrust enforcers new resources to police possible abuses by the major firms, despite decades of “institutional failure” where the agencies “failed to block monopolists from establishing or maintaining their dominance.” Recommendation include increasing budgets, allowing the Federal Trade Commission to seek civil penalties for violations and imposing stricter prohibitions on senior staff from the agencies doing work for the companies after their tenure.

Where the parties differ: Republican lawmakers said in a separate report Tuesday that they support boosting funding and staffing levels for regulators and some more modest proposals to change U.S. antitrust laws, but they balked at Democrats’ more aggressive proposals. They include what Cicilline has described as a Glass-Steagall law for technology platforms, a reference to the Depression-era law that split up commercial and investment banking.

Instead, Republicans favor making it easier for antitrust enforcers at the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission to block mergers by “shifting the burden of proof” on what constitutes an anti-competitive acquisition. GOP lawmakers also supported measures to give consumers more control of their data by making personal information portable and interoperable among platforms.

“We agree that antitrust enforcement agencies need additional resources and tools to provide proper oversight,” Buck wrote in a response to the Democratic-majority’s recommendations, as POLITICO first reported Monday. “However, these potential changes need not be dramatic to be effective.

Reps. Doug Collins of Georgia, who served as the top Republican on Judiciary until earlier this year; Matt Gaetz of Florida, who sits on the antitrust subcommittee; and Andy Biggs of Arizona joined Buck is supporting the report.

The bias issue: After the report surfaced Tuesday, Judiciary’s top Republican rebuked the panel’s Democratic leaders for not addressing allegations of an anti-conservative bias by top social media platforms, which the companies deny and Democrats dismiss as baseless.

“Big tech is out to get conservatives,” Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the Democrats’ partisan report ignores this fundamental problem and potential solutions and instead advances radical proposals that would refashion antitrust law in the vision of the far left.”

Leah Nylen contributed to this report.


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