By Makena Kelly
There are very few issues with the power to transcend partisan politics in Washington — and even fewer with the power to fracture parties and make bedfellows of Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Josh Hawley (R-MO). In an interview with The Verge on Tuesday, Klobuchar described how reigning in Big Tech has done just that.
Over President Joe Biden’s first year in office, bipartisan grief over Big Tech’s stranglehold on markets simmered beneath a surface tension of factional back-and-forths on issues like coronavirus aid and infrastructure funding. While wonky discussions over antitrust reform may have easily gotten lost in the noise of other Democratic priorities, Klobuchar pressed forward, introducing a handful of bills capitalizing on a broad congressional consensus that the Amazons, Facebooks, and Googles of the tech industry had grown into “monopolies” that could exclude competitors and allow for platforms to set their own standards for the internet.
Klobuchar’s campaign paid off on the morning of January 20th, only days after the Biden administration announced new initiatives to rein in corporate power across industries, including tech. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved her “American Innovation and Choice Online Act” that afternoon, setting it up for final consideration on the floor. If enacted, the bill would ban dominant platforms, like Facebook and Google, from favoring their own products and services over those of their competitors. On top of this measure, another Klobuchar bill, which would provide more funding for the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission through larger merger filing fees, is set to receive final approval in the House next month, she said.
“We got to this moment because of years of inaction,” Klobuchar said in a phone interview with The Verge on Tuesday. “A lot of people talk a big game, but nothing has passed.”
But after last week’s successful markup, Congress is closer now more than ever to addressing the power of Big Tech. Last summer, Klobuchar’s counterparts in the House approved a companion bill to her legislation, so all that’s left is for final floor consideration in both the Senate and the House before Biden can sign it into law.
This possibility has tech spooked. In 2021, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Uber, and Twitter spent nearly $70 million lobbying politicians as Republicans and Democrats pursued legislation to address their market power, according to The Washington Post. Days before Klobuchar’s bill was approved out of committee, Apple and Google brandished statements criticizing her legislation, warning that it would hurt consumers rather than help them. Industry-backed lobbying groups were more explicit. Chamber of Progress, a group funded by Amazon, said that the bill would “eliminate both the funding model and logistics model that make Prime,” a popular company service, “possible.”
Klobuchar dismissed the industry’s concerns in a conversation with The Verge. “It’s not like we’re trying to make them or all of their innovations go away. Of course not. That’s ridiculous,” she said. “We’re simply trying to put some rules of the road in place so that they cannot give preference to their own products over others or copy the data of other companies and use it to their advantage.”
Still, any new rules have been perceived as a sizable threat to an industry that’s broadly avoided any form of regulation over the last few decades. Throughout last week’s markup, senators on both sides of the aisle proposed changes to the bill that could drastically change its effectiveness. Klobuchar told The Verge that she was willing to work in good faith with other senators, but “we have to have a bill that actually does something.”
“Everyone’s trying to win a popularity contest with the tech companies. You’ve got to come to grips that these companies will be fine. They’re trillion-dollar companies. We’re just making space for competitors,” she said.
While the Biden administration appears eager to take on corporate power this year, its efforts could be sullied by more pressing issues as lawmakers return to their districts looking to tout big Democratic wins as the midterm elections heat up. Asked if antitrust reform was a winning issue for Democrats, Klobuchar said she hadn’t “thought of it in that way.”
“We have people from all different kinds of ideologies that are committed to keeping markets competitive,” she continued. “It is much more about what’s best for America and what’s best for competition than what’s best for either political party. I think it is healthy because we are focused on getting this done for the people of this country.”
Political wins are measured in how they affect the everyday lives of voters. In a year overwhelmed by crises — like the administration’s responses to COVID-19 and inflation — antitrust reform isn’t likely to be top of mind for voters in either party. Still, Klobuchar argued that her bills would drop prices in online markets like Amazon and give parents more control over what their children see on social media.
“Allowing more competition gives them more choice so that they can protect their kids,” Klobuchar said.
But even if Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) find the time to bring the antitrust bill to the floor, it doesn’t mean that they’ll be able to secure the votes for the legislation to pass. While many Republicans and Democrats support competition reform, others argue that it’s unnecessary and could result in more harm to companies and consumers. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) sparred with Klobuchar over the bill in last week’s markup, suggesting that the administration opposed it. “I would like to know if you have some knowledge that I do not know,” Klobuchar replied during the markup. “That is a pretty bold statement.”
Now, the future of the bill relies on Klobuchar and her colleague’s abilities to rally the remaining lawmakers onto their side.
“At one point during the hearing, one of the senators said to me, ‘You know, you’re up against a lot. This isn’t going to be easy,’” Klobuchar told The Verge on Tuesday. “Really? I didn’t know that!” she laughed.
“We know that. But, you just can’t give up.”