The House Judiciary committee passed six antitrust bills late Wednesday and early today aimed at broadly regulating the business practices of the tech industry’s largest players, particularly their policies toward competitors.
The vote, which followed a 19-hour debate session, represents the culmination of a more than yearlong regulatory process. It began in 2019 when the House Judiciary’s subcommittee on antitrust launched a probe to determine if Apple Inc., Facebook Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Google LLC harm competition with their business practices. The subcommittee, after reaching the conclusion that the companies hold monopoly power, recommended changes be made to existing antitrust law to protect market competition.
The six antitrust bills passed by the House Judiciary implement many of the core recommendations that the subcommittee presented. The perhaps most impactful of the proposals is the Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching Act, or ACCESS Act for short, which would impose new rules on how tech giants operate digital platforms such as app stores.
The proposal covers several types of digital platforms. Concerning mobile operating systems, the text of the ACCESS Act specifies that companies such as Apple and Google may not “restrict or impede covered platform users from un-installing software applications that have been preinstalled on the covered platform.” Regarding app marketplaces, the law includes provisions that may require Apple to let users download apps from marketplaces other than the App Store, which the company currently doesn’t officially support.
The legislative proposals prompted the iPhone maker to publish a report on Wednesday in which it made the case that allowing apps from other sources would harm iOS users’ privacy. “Allowing sideloading would degrade the security of the iOS platform and expose users to serious security risks not only on third-party app stores, but also on the App Store,” Apple stated in the report.
The ACCESS Act also seeks to increase regulation of the search market, which is dominated by Google. It would prohibit companies from configuring their search engines in a way that treats their “own products, services, or lines of business more favorably than those of another business user.” The provision could potentially apply not only to Google Search but also to other services such as the internal search engine of the App Store, which Apple was at one point accused of using to help its apps reach more users than competing services.
On the heels of Apple’s Wednesday report, Google today modified its previously announced plans to block third-party cookies in Chrome. The company said it would push back the release of the change from early 2022 to late 2023. The decision follows criticism from competitors that claimed that the move would make it difficult for them to deliver personalized ads, which rely on data collected on users’ interests by third-party cookies.
“Right now, unregulated tech monopolies have too much power over our economy,” Representative David Cicilline, chairman of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, said in a statement when the proposals passed this week were introduced. “They are in a unique position to pick winners and losers, destroy small businesses, raise prices on consumers, and put folks out of work. Our agenda will level the playing field and ensure the wealthiest, most powerful tech monopolies play by the same rules as the rest of us.”
The other bills that the House Judiciary passed alongside the ACCESS Act cover a wide range of areas. The Platform Competition and Opportunity Act, for instance, would prohibit tech giants that hold a dominant position in their markets from acquiring firms that pose a competitive threat. The related Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act would require tech giants to pay more regulatory fees in connection with acquisitions that they do receive approval to close. The vision is to use the additional income from those fees to provide regulatory agencies with more resources for enforcing competition laws.
Now that the bills have been passed by the House Judiciary, they can proceed to the full House, though some observers think they will be a challenge to pass in a deeply divided government. The legislative effort to regulate the tech industry’s largest players more closely comes as the same companies also face increasing regulatory scrutiny in the European Union.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, this year opened a broad investigation into Google to determine if the company may have implemented business practices that harm the digital ad industry. Investigators plan to evaluate the way Google runs YouTube, Android and its display advertising business, as well as scrutinize the company’s plan to block third-party cookies in Chrome.
Earlier, the European Commission brought formal antitrust charges against Apple for requiring that iOS app developers exclusively process in-app transactions through its own payment service.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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