Washington is ramping up efforts to rein in the market power of the largest tech companies in the United States.
Although President Biden has remained fairly quiet on any antitrust action since assuming office, he has nominated and appointed two critics of Big Tech to key enforcement and advisory positions.
In the Senate, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have proposed bills aimed at curbing concerns over anti-competitive practices.
The House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee held a key hearing with Apple and Google executives earlier this week. The previous week, the full panel formally approved the report released by Democrats on the committee last year that outlined ways Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook allegedly abused their market power.
Here are five big players to watch going forward.
One of the strongest indicators of Biden’s willingness to rein in the market power of the top tech companies was his nomination of Lina Khan to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Khan, an influential antitrust scholar who was boosted by progressive critics of big tech, is known for her “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” paper, which she wrote as a student at Yale. She also served as an aide to the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee's investigation into the market power of the biggest tech companies.
During her Senate Commerce nomination hearing Wednesday, Khan said the market power Google and Apple enjoy in the app store field is a “significant issue” and should be examined closely.
She also supported increased children’s privacy protection measures, telling senators the existing rules “should be the floor not the ceiling.”
She was praised by Democrats, including Senate Judiciary subcommittee Chair Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) who called Khan an “out-of-the box thinker” and a “pioneer in competition policy.”
The hearing was largely a friendly affair. Although some Republicans raised concerns — Sen. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) questioned Khan’s background and level of experience and Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) questioned if Khan would recuse herself from some cases over her involvement with the House Judiciary antitrust report — none forcefully pushed back on her nomination.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) even told Khan “I look forward” to working with you — a reflection of a bipartisan desire to tackle tech companies.
“I think there’s a lot more the commission can do in terms of ensuring transparency from Big Tech, which right now is incredibly opaque,” Cruz said.
If confirmed, Khan will have allies in the administration.
Biden appointed notable Big Tech critic Tim Wu as special assistant to the president for technology and competition policy last month.
And on Wednesday, the Senate confirmed Biden nominee Vanita Gupta to the No. 3 position at the Department of Justice. Gupta in recent years has been an antagonist of major social media platforms in her role as CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Khan would join the FTC at a crucial time as the agency engages in its lawsuit against Facebook. The FTC and 46 states, plus Washington, D.C., and Guam, sued Facebook over allegations of anti-competitive acquisitions.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)
Klobuchar, a former presidential candidate who had a good relationship with Biden, is a key Democratic lawmaker to watch in the coming battle.
The Minnesotan introduced the Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act earlier this year, which would revamp antitrust enforcement, in part through upping the annual funding to the FTC and Justice Department’s antitrust division.
Klobuchar’s bill would also aim to make anti-competitive mergers more difficult by amending the Clayton Act, adding a risk-based standard to the law and clarifying that mergers that create a monopoly violate it.
Klobuchar has said the antitrust subcommittee she chairs will hold a series of hearings to look into potential anti-competitive behavior from the tech giants and weigh legislative proposals.
The latest hearing on Wednesday put Google and Apple in the hot seat as Klobuchar and subcommittee members pressed executives on their app store policies.
“We all appreciate app stores and the roles that Apple and Google have played in helping to create many of the technologies that have defined our age. That’s great. We’re not angry about success. We simply want to make sure that capitalism keeps going in a strong, strong way that’s fair to everyone,” Klobuchar said at the hearing.
“But capitalism is about competition. It's about new products coming on. It's about new competitors emerging. This situation, to me, doesn’t seem like that’s happening” she added.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah)
Lee, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, is also focused on Big Tech, though sometimes from a slightly different perspective than Klobuchar.
He’s accused tech companies of anti-competitive behavior for actions they took against the fringe social media app Parler after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
Although Lee has joined GOP colleagues blasting tech companies over unsubstantiated claims of anti-conservative biases, he has also joined Klobuchar and other members in holding the tech giants accountable over accusations of anti-competitive practices.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Lee pushed Google and Apple over the up to 30 percent commission fees charged to some apps — and the distinction between what apps are subject to the fees.
Google and Apple executives said apps such as Uber, which deliver physical products, are not subject to the feeds, but that dating apps such as Tinder are because they’re seen as providing a digital service.
“Uber is literally meeting a stranger for transportation,” Lee said. “I’m not grasping the differentiation point between meeting a stranger for transportation and meeting a stranger for dinner.”
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has also proposed legislative action to curb the power of the companies.
In announcing his “Trust-Busting for the Twenty-First Century Act,” Hawley slammed the “woke mega-corporations” for efforts to “control” speech.
But similarly to Klobuchar’s proposal, Hawley’s would reform the Clayton Act to make it easier for regulators to break up dominant firms.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.)
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) has used his perch at the top of the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust to lead and shape Democrats’ approach to Big Tech.
“I look forward to crafting legislation that addresses the significant concerns we have raised,” he said after his panel’s antitrust report was approved last week.
The Rhode Island lawmaker is planning to release a raft of antitrust proposals — up to 10 bills — sometime this spring and may have some work to do to get Democrats behind more aggressive policies.
Some of the solutions from the report that could be turned into bills include a presumptive freeze on acquisitions for major companies, enforcing structural separation, which would require some corporations to pursue a single line of business, and increasing the funding for and authority of the FTC and DOJ antitrust office.
Those more narrow proposals could make it an easier lift to garner the Republican support that will be needed to move any major reforms through the Senate.
Cicilline has already held three hearings this Congress focused on reviving competition to start building out legislative solutions to the monopoly problems addressed in his report.
Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.)
Cicilline’s counterpart on the antitrust subcommittee, Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) is set to play a pivotal role in marshaling Republican support behind any proposal.
Buck called the investigation leading up to the Big Tech report “absolutely bipartisan” at last week’s markup, but did not vote to approve it because the proposed fixes were written by Democrats.
The Colorado lawmaker released his own report with Republican backing establishing bipartisan consensus on the need to provide more resources to antitrust regulators and reform the burden of proof for merger cases. Buck has already backed one antitrust bill — the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act — this session.
He has also been outspoken about the perceived gatekeeping power of tech giants over app stores and web hosting services fueled by Apple, Google and Amazon’s action taken against Parler.
Buck and Lee wrote a letter pressing Google and Apple over their decisions to pull Parler from their app stores and Amazon over pulling Parler from its web hosting service. The companies took action over Parler’s lack of content moderation policies and posts musing about the deadly riot at the Capitol.
Apple confirmed in a letter to the lawmakers this week that it will allow Parler back into the app store after making approved updates.
Buck is pushing for Google and Amazon to take similar action.
“It’s time for Google and Amazon to follow Apple’s lead,” Buck said in a statement Wednesday. “Stop the censorship.”