US lawmakers back Big Tech regulation bills in marathon session

WASHINGTON (AFP) – United States (US) lawmakers debated into the early hours yesterday over details of legislation aimed at curbing the power of Big Tech firms with a sweeping reform of antitrust laws.

House Judiciary Committee members clashed while tweaking bills with potentially massive implications for large online platforms and their users.

Legislation being forwarded to the floor of the House of Representatives could force an overhaul of the practices of Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook, or potentially lead to a breakup of the dominant tech giants.

Critics argue the measures could have unintended consequences that would hurt consumers and some of the most popular online services.

Representative David Cicilline, who headed a 16-month investigation that led to the legislation, said the bills are aimed at restoring competition in markets stymied by monopolies.

“Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google are gatekeepers to the online economy,” Cicilline said during the hearing.

“They bury or buy rivals and abuse their monopoly power, conduct that are harmful to consumers, competition, innovation and our democracy.”

The bills would restrict how online platforms operate, notably whether tech giants operating them can favour their own products or services.

An illustration picture taken in London shows the logos of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft displayed on a mobile phone and a laptop screen. PHOTO: AFP

The measures would also limit mergers or acquisitions by Big Tech firms aimed at limiting competition, and make it easier for users to try new services by requiring data “portability” and “interoperability”.

A bill requiring user data to be easily moved between platforms passed as midnight neared Wednesday.

“If you hate the way Facebook moderates posts, you should love this bill, which requires Facebook to interoperate with competing platforms so that users can choose the moderators they want,” the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a tweet.

Members of the committee went on to green-light a bill that would require Big Tech firms to prove an acquisition or merger would not crimp competition.

Currently, US regulators have to prove a merger is anti-competitive to block it.

“This legislation is not a merger ban,” Cicilline said.

“It merely makes them show their merger will not stifle competition.”

The bill came under fire by members of Congress who felt it unjust to apply a presumption of guilt when it comes to mergers.

Before adjourning until 11am yesterday, the committee gave the go-ahead to a bill which would bar platforms from favouring their own products – by, for example, giving them prominence in an online marketplace or using software as default on an electronic device.

It was expected to discuss, after the adjournment, a bill which would make it easier to break up tech giants.

During the marathon session, lasting more than 16 hours, some Republicans and moderate Democrats expressed concerns despite bipartisan support for the bills.

Representative Darrell Issa noted that the committee was considering “radical” reforms worthy of weeks of hearings rather than one marathon session.

“I believe many of these bills are going to die in the Senate if they ever get out of the House,” Issa said.

Clash points included whether it is right to target laws at four big tech companies and whether government agencies will hobble them instead of letting them adapt to competition.

“The interoperability measure is a huge step backwards,” said Oregon Republican Cliff Bentz.

“Big Tech is certainly not perfect. This bill is not the way to fix the problem.”