Battle over Big Tech bills goes down to the wire

Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) addresses reporters following the weekly policy luncheon on Wednesday, June 22, 2022.
Greg Nash
Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) addresses reporters following the weekly policy luncheon on Wednesday, June 22, 2022.

Lobbying both for and against legislation to crack down on U.S. tech giants is intensifying as the Senate enters a critical month for the antitrust bills. 

All eyes are on Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who will need to decide whether to prioritize measures to regulate Google, Apple, Amazon and Meta over other key bills prior to the August recess.

Much of the lobbying in recent weeks has centered around the Senate’s limited floor time before lawmakers leave town next month. Congress isn’t expected to make much progress on major legislation after returning from their break, when lawmakers typically shift their attention to the November election.

In an effort to run out the clock, the big four tech firms and their Washington allies are warning Senate Democrats that their voters expect progress on other pressing issues entering November’s elections. 

Smaller companies that support the bills, however, are making the case that regulating Big Tech is a winning midterm issue.

“It’s basically a fourth and one situation right now,” said Matt Fossen, the U.S. communications manager for Proton, a privacy-focused email service that supports the legislation.

“We’re incredibly close, we think, to getting this over the goal line, but it’s still a really tight window of opportunity,” Fossen said. “We simultaneously feel optimism and urgency.” 

The two bills, expected to be packaged together, take aim at the gatekeeper power of dominant tech companies.

The American Innovation and Choice Online (AICO) Act would bar tech giants — most likely only those big four firms — from giving preferential treatment to their own products and services on the platforms they operate.

The Open App Markets Act is more narrowly focused on mobile application stores. It would bar Apple and Google from favoring their own apps in stores, requiring developers to use their payment services or preventing users from downloading apps from third-party distributors.

Both measures advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in March, but momentum has stalled as industry lobbyists have bombarded senators with emails, calls, meetings and Washington-centric ad blitzes opposing them.  

The coalition of medium and small businesses, civil society groups and pro-competition think tanks pushing the pair of bills have been arguing that they would result in both positive policy results and helping candidates going into the midterms. 

Supporters argue that the legislation would get Big Tech off the back of American businesses and boost competition, ultimately improving the cost and quality of services available to consumers. 

“There’s a policy argument to be made that this is good policy — it will unleash innovation, it will give a benefit [to] developers and consumers — but there’s also a political argument to be made, and we’re pushing that as well: Good policy makes good politics,” said Rick VanMeter, executive of the Coalition for App Fairness.

Much of the focus in the home stretch has been on Schumer, given his ultimate say in bringing the bills to a floor vote.

The digital rights group Fight for the Future has had two mobile billboard trucks at the Senate leader’s New York and D.C. residences all week playing a John Oliver segment about the antitrust bills.

“That was our tongue-in-cheek idea to try to get his attention,” said Evan Greer, the group’s director. “And I’m sure it has gotten his attention.”

Some proponents have been focusing their efforts on senators outside of the Judiciary and Commerce committees who are less well-versed on antitrust issues and therefore more susceptible to industry talking points.

“When we meet with them, we’re often talking about really basic things about how we’re being affected,” said Kate McInnis, senior public policy manager at the search engine DuckDuckGo. “Then we get to the bills and they often are very, very surprised and interested to learn how we and other tech companies like ours have been affected by Big Tech’s encumbrances to competition and to user choice.”

Big Tech allies argue that the bills would harm data security and privacy, limit access to popular features such as Amazon Prime, constrain content moderation efforts and undermine U.S. competitiveness and national security by weakening the nation’s tech giants.

“As we’re talking with legislators and their teams and helping them better grasp the ramifications of this legislation, they’re realizing it’s not ready for prime-time,” Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, an advocacy group backed by the big four tech giants that spent more than $10 million on ads opposing AICO. 

Competing forces are seeking to influence Schumer’s priorities as the majority leader confronts a packed agenda that includes a bipartisan measure to boost U.S. competitiveness with China, the annual Pentagon spending bill and a party-line budget reconciliation package that aims to lower drug prices and potentially address climate change.  

A recent poll from the Coalition for App Fairness found that 79 percent of swing state voters support the Open App Markets Act, and 68 percent said that Big Tech firms have too much power. 

That came after the tech-backed Chamber of Progress released a poll finding that tech regulation is toward the bottom of the priority list for voters compared to other issues such as controlling inflation and lowering prescription drug prices.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a top proponent of tech regulation, has said that both bills would win the support of 60 senators if they were to receive a floor vote. 

Still, lobbyists with tech clients say that some senators would push for amendments to earn their vote, likely complicating the process. While Senate Republican leaders haven’t been rallying their ranks to oppose the antitrust bills, they would likely take advantage of the deliberative process to slow down other Democratic priorities, they say. 

“Leader Schumer supports the legislation and is working with Senator Klobuchar and others to get the necessary support to pass it,” a Schumer spokesperson said in an email, referring to the antitrust bills.

Tech giants ramped up their lobbying spending to record levels as the antitrust bills gained traction earlier this year. Apple shelled out more than $2.5 million on lobbying in the first three months of 2022, up 71 percent from the same period last year. Meta and Amazon spent $5.4 million and $5 million, respectively, both first-quarter highs.

Dozens of Washington advocacy groups and think tanks that receive funding from tech giants, including liberal and conservative organizations, have spoken out against the antitrust bills. Former national security officials with ties to Big Tech are urging lawmakers to delay AICO to examine its impact on U.S. security. 

Chief executives of Google, Amazon and Apple have personally met with Senate leaders to discuss their issues with the bills and suggest potential changes in the event that Schumer moves forward with them.

Tech executives are also writing large checks. Schumer’s campaign is the top recipient of donations from Apple employees, bringing in nearly $102,000 during the 2022 election cycle, according to research group OpenSecrets. His campaign received $170,000 from Google employees and its PAC. Most of those funds came from the tech firms’ executives and lobbyists.

Although they may not have the same financial muscle to flex, CEOs of smaller supportive tech firms have also been holding numerous meetings in Washington. Proton CEO Andy Yen, for example, will be returning for a second visit to the nation’s capital later this month in an effort to push the bills across the finish line.

“There’s overwhelming consensus that people want these big tech companies reined in,” Greer said. “The feeling here is that this should be inevitable and if it doesn’t happen in the coming weeks it’s going to be because of the corrupting influence of corporate lobbying and money in Washington, D.C.”

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