The clock is ticking on the antitrust bill targeting big tech

WASHINGTON — Critics of the nation’s largest tech companies marked the last few months “Hot Antitrust Summer” because they waited for Congress to vote on new regulations for Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook.

Instead, the chances of the legislation passing before Labor Day were dashed. The Senate is expected to tackle one last major issue before its August recess, debating and voting on Democrats’ sweeping climate, tax and health care package.

The failure to secure a vote is a setback for politicians, activists and regulators who believe that Big Tech has too much control over commerce, communications and culture. After Labor Day, Washington will focus much of its attention on midterm elections rather than major legislation. And if Republicans regain their majority in Congress, the regulations have a much lesser chance of being implemented.

“One of the senators actually said to me, ‘Maybe you were ahead of your time,’” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota and the main sponsor of the legislation, said in an interview. “And I told them, ‘Yes, but being ahead of your time doesn’t mean your time hasn’t come.’ And at some point your time comes.”

Supporters of Ms. Klobuchar’s bill, called the American Online Options and Innovation Act, argue that a national update to antitrust law would allow smaller companies to prosper by reining in big tech companies. The bill would prohibit companies from prioritizing their own services over those of their rivals. So Amazon, for example, couldn’t show its own Amazon Basics batteries before those made by Duracell, and Google might have to put its own restaurant reviews on par with sites like Yelp in search results.

Supporters of the bill cheered in May when Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader, said privately that he would bring it up for a vote in early summer. It passed the Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support, and Ms. Klobuchar and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, her top Republican co-sponsor, said they had the votes for the legislation to succeed if the full Senate voted for it.

Tech companies spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying against the bill. Corporate-funded groups ran ads in swing states, saying the legislation was ill-advised at a time of rampant inflation. The CEOs of Google, Apple and Amazon personally lobbied against the bill.

The industry also argued that there could be unintended consequences for online speech, as the bill could also be interpreted to limit the amount of content these companies can moderate, including hate posts. Supporters of the bill say their concerns are unfounded, but four Democratic senators called in June for the bill to be amended to ensure it was not misunderstood.

Supporters of the bill have tried to keep pushing Schumer to put it up for a vote, highlighting the work his sons have done for big tech companies.

They argued that if lawmakers had to vote on the bill, it would pass. But at a fundraiser last month, Schumer said he didn’t think the measure had the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. And he said he wouldn’t put it on the floor until he had a better idea of ​​what he could get through, said a person with knowledge of his comments, that he would speak only anonymously because the discussion was private. Mr. Schumer’s comments were first reported by Bloomberg.

“All I can tell you is that Klobuchar was very disappointed when she was led to believe that it was going to be raised in this time frame and it wasn’t mentioned, and we don’t have much time between now and the election. Grassley said in an interview.

Other priorities in the Senate, such as the climate, energy and tax package negotiated between Sen. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat from West Virginia, and Mr. Schumer, have also sidelined antitrust issues. Before the surprise reconciliation deal on that bill, slow work on a veterans health care bill, a sweeping gun control measure and a chip manufacturing bill dominated the legislative calendar.

Some of the bill’s co-sponsors said the bill was a low priority for them as they prepared to leave Capitol Hill for the month. Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, said she was focusing on legislation being discussed before the August recess.

Ms. Klobuchar said that she had spoken with Mr. Schumer and discussed the possibility of bringing the bill to a vote in the fall.

“I think he’s committed to working on this and moving it forward,” he said. There is also a similar proposal in the House of Representatives that has bipartisan support.

A Schumer spokesman said in a statement that the majority leader was “working with Senator Klobuchar and other supporters to muster the necessary votes and plans to bring it to a vote.”

Sarah Miller, executive director of the liberal American Economic Freedoms Project, said if efforts to pass a new antitrust law in Washington fail, it would only make it more difficult for agencies like the Federal Trade Commission, which has sued to block the Meta acquisition. by Meta. a virtual reality company last month, and top state lawmakers to rein in Big Tech.

“Fortunately, there is not just one sheriff in town,” he said, “although I do believe that the ability of Congress to directly promote fairness and competition in digital markets will continue to be an essential project.”

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