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US lawmakers open contentious debate on Big Tech regulation

'The digital marketplace suffers from a lack of competition. Many digital markets are defined by monopolies or duopoly control,' Cicilline said as the hearing opened

AFP , Wednesday 23 Jun 2021
US Tech Companies
In this file photo taken on August 28, 2019 shows the US multinational technology and Internet-related services company Google logo (top L), US online store application Amazon (top C), US online social media and social networking service, Facebook (top R) and US multinational technology company Apple logo application (down C) displayed on a tablet in Lille AFP
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US lawmakers Wednesday launched a contentious debate on legislation aimed at curbing the power of Big Tech firms with a sweeping reform of antitrust laws.

House Judiciary Committee members began what was expected to be lengthy debate preceding a vote on five bills with potentially massive implications for large online platforms and consumers who use them.

The legislation could force an overhaul of the business practices of Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook, or potentially lead to a breakup of the dominant tech giants. But 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.

"The digital marketplace suffers from a lack of competition. Many digital markets are defined by monopolies or duopoly control," Cicilline said as the hearing opened.

"Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google are gatekeepers to the online economy. They bury or by rivals and abuse their monopoly power conduct that is harmful to consumers, competition, innovation and our democracy."

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

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."

The fate of the bills remained unclear, with some Republicans and moderate Democrats expressing concerns despite bipartisan support.

Republican Representative Ken Buck, a supporter of the initiative, said the legislation "represents a scalpel, not a chainsaw, to deal with the most important aspects of antitrust reform," in dealing with "these monopolists (who) routinely use their gatekeeper power to crush competitors, harm innovation and destroy the free market."

But Republican Jim Jordan criticized the effort, renewing his argument that Big Tech firms suppress conservative voices.

"These bills don't fix that problem -- they make it worse," Jordan said. "They don't break up Big Tech. They don't stop censorship."

- Pushback from industry -
Tech firms and others warned of negative consequences for popular services people rely on, potentially forcing Apple to remove its messaging apps from the iPhone or Google to stop displaying results from YouTube or Maps.

Apple released a report arguing that one likely impact -- opening up the iPhone to apps from outside platforms -- could create security and privacy risks for users.

Forcing Apple to allow "sideloading" of apps would mean "malicious actors would take advantage of the opportunity by devoting more resources to develop sophisticated attacks targeting iOS users," the report said.

Amazon vice president Brian Huseman warned of "significant negative effects" both for sellers and consumers using the e-commerce platform, and reduced price competition.

"It will be much harder for these third-party sellers to create awareness for their business," Huseman said.

"Removing the selection of these sellers from Amazon's store would also create less price competition for products, and likely end up increasing prices for consumers. The committee is moving unnecessarily fast in pushing these bills forward."

The measures may also impact Microsoft, which has not been the focus of the House antitrust investigation but which links services such as Teams messaging and Bing search to its Windows platform, and possibly other firms.

Analyst Daniel Ives at Wedbush Securities said the chances of passage of a major antitrust overhaul were slim in the current political situation, and that any enforcement action would be limited in the absence of new legislation.

As a result, share prices of the major tech firms have seen little movement.

"We believe this antitrust momentum hits a brick wall and for now is more a headline risk that investors are taking in stride," he said.

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