Democrats pick fight against Big Tech ahead of 2022 election
Senate Democrats are gearing up to battle some of the nation’s biggest tech companies in the midst of an election year by ramping up work on a tech antitrust bill that has turned into a major fight.
It’s a risky move. The three Big Tech companies in their crosshairs — Amazon, Apple and Google — employ more than a million people and have services widely used across the country. Millions of Americans, including members of Congress, own shares of the companies in their stock portfolios.
And Big Tech companies spent $124 million on lobbying and campaign contributions in the 2020 election cycle, during which Amazon’s spending increased by 30 percent, according to Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust, and Consumer Rights, briefed Senate Democrats at lunch Tuesday on her bipartisan bill to crack down on the preferential treatment Big Tech companies give their own products, which passed the full Judiciary Committee by a vote of 16-6 in January.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said after the meeting that he is working with Klobuchar to bring the bill to the floor.
“We had a very good discussion. She made a very powerful presentation, and I’m working with her to see that we can get 60 votes to get to the floor,” he said.
Her bill, which is co-sponsored by Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and other Republicans, would prohibit large online platforms from giving preference to their own products, limiting the availability of competing products or discriminating in the enforcement of the platform’s terms of service. That could include Amazon placing its own products higher in the search results of its online platform or Apple barring downloads from outside its proprietary App Store.
Klobuchar estimates that opponents of her bill have about 2,700 lobbyists and have spent about $70 million to kill the legislation.
One Democratic senator said “Apple is flipping out” over the legislation and warning it would make it tougher for the company to protect users’ privacy — one of its main selling points with consumers.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who voted for the bill in committee, said Apple CEO Tim Cook tried to persuade him in a 40-minute call earlier this year not to support it.
Republican Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.), John Kennedy (La.), Grassley, Graham and Cruz, voted to advance the bill out of committee earlier this year.
Cook warned at the International Association of Privacy Professionals conference in Washington earlier this month that Klobuchar’s antitrust bill will “leave users with less choice — not more” and put pressure on consumers to use app stores where their privacy won’t be protected.
That puts Democrats at odds with an important group of donors. Apple employees made $8.7 million in contributions during the 2020 election cycle and President Biden was the biggest recipient, collecting $1.88 million in contributions, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Cook gave more than $230,000 to the Hillary Victory Fund in 2016.
Democratic senators acknowledge it’s going to be a tough political fight likely to anger some of their donors and constituents, but they argue they need to put some points on the board in the form of legislative accomplishments before the midterm election.
“Every time you do something that’s meaningful, you’re going to piss off somebody, and I think the recipe for failure is trying to please everybody. So you just got to make the call the best you can,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who praised Klobuchar’s bill as “good” and “solid” but also said he needs more time to study it.
There’s growing public distrust about the huge influence major tech companies wield, a concern that is growing more acute among some Democratic senators in the wake of Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s announcement Monday that he will buy Twitter and take it private.
“There are a number of proposals that would require more competition and transparency in Big Tech and Elon Musk taking control of Twitter simply highlights the importance of imposing those guardrails and safeguards,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
But he noted it’s a tough battle against corporate titans with deep pockets.
“The Big Tech companies have mobilized armies of lawyers and lobbyists who oppose measures that promote competition,” he added.
There’s trepidation among some Democrats about moving forward with the bill, namely California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, who both voiced concerns earlier this year that the bill targeted companies based in their home state. Apple and Google are headquartered in Northern California.
Both senators, however, voted to pass the legislation out of the Judiciary Committee.
Vulnerable incumbents are keeping their distance from the controversial legislation.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) told The Hill on Tuesday that she hadn’t had a chance to review it.
But other Democrats say they need to do something to promote more competition in the tech sector while they still control Congress.
The party is widely expected to lose their House majority in the November election, and there’s growing concern that the Senate may flip, too.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said “we’ve neglected the antitrust enforcement for many, many years.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said: “It’s critically important that companies like Amazon not get to play both the umpire and have a team in the game at the same time,” referring to the ability of Google, for instance, to prioritize Google-posted consumer reviews over a competitor such as Yelp.
Yelp was one of 35 small- and medium-sized tech companies that wrote a letter to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee in January expressing support for the bill. Other signatories included DuckDuckGo, Patreon, Sonos and Y Combinator.
Some Democrats say Musk’s purchase of Twitter is highlighting the need to push back against the growing dominance and influence of huge tech companies.