A passionate and bipartisan legislative effort to rein in the country’s biggest tech companies collapsed this week, falling victim to an epic lobbying campaign by Amazon, Apple, Google and Meta.
The internet titans spent hundreds of millions of dollars, sent their CEOs to Washington, and used trade groups and sympathetic scholars to overturn two antitrust laws co-sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, a Republican from Iowa. The companies treated the bills like an existential threat.
The years-long legislative effort, which sparked outrage at the power and dominance of tech companies, would have exposed Alphabet’s crackdown on the practices of Google, Amazon.com, Meta Platforms, and Apple for the first time in nearly three decades of the Internet’s existence.
The closely watched bills advanced further than any other antitrust overhaul in decades, emerging from an 18-month House investigation led by the Rhode Island Democrat representative. David Cicillin. America’s Innovation and Choice Online Act would have prevented the tech giants from using their platforms to disadvantage competitors, while the Open App Markets Act would have scaled back Apple’s and Google’s control over app stores.
Despite an aggressive push in the eleventh hour, the bills were not included in the year-end spending package released Monday, the last shot this year. The Senate included a smaller trio of antitrust laws in the year-end spending package. This legislation will provide more money and resources to the country’s top antitrust authorities, marking the first time in decades that Congress has voted to expand antitrust enforcement actions. But these provisions will not bring about the sweeping legislative changes some proponents had hoped for.
The companies have been forced to make significant changes in Europe to comply with similar European Union laws that are expected to come into force in the coming years. US advocates believe the same will happen here – but it will take time.
The opposition campaign exploited the conflicting concerns of the two parties. Two Democrats, tech lobbyists, argued that the bills would hurt marginalized groups and affect online privacy. Two Republicans, they focused on free speech and free markets.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.), whose daughters work for Amazon and Meta, declined to announce the measures in this session, saying they had not, despite insistence from the bill’s co-supporters Agree You had enough support. Key leaders in the Republican House of Representatives have made it clear that legislation will not come unless they regain control of the lower house.
This report is based on 45 interviews with lawmakers, congressional assistants, lobbyists, technology experts and advocates.
In addition to lobbying, other factors led to the bills’ demise: partisan deadlock, personal animosity among lawmakers, greater legislative priorities, lack of action by Schumer, and perceived inflexibility by Klobuchar. But the lobbying was titanic in scope.
“Big tech companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in a brazen attempt to thwart any advances in technology policy in Washington,” said Klobuchar spokeswoman Jane Meyer. She added that Klobuchar and the co-sponsors of the House and Senate “have not backed down despite this attack.”
The bills had a well-organized support. A coalition of smaller tech companies, civil society groups and companies owned by Rupert Murdoch have campaigned heavily on their behalf. Murdoch’s Fox and News Corp., which have long battled Google for its dominance in finding and distributing news, worked to win Republicans on board. The small tech companies and consumer groups spent $2 million on advertising, covering Capitol Hill and organizing protest after protest.
It wasn’t up to what they were dealing with.
The big tech companies have put aside rivalries and banded together. She and her trade groups spent more than $100 million in lobbying in two years, surpassing spending-heavy industries like pharmaceuticals and defense. They donated more than $5 million to politicians, and tech lobbyists pooled more than $1 million for the PAC, which is responsible for defending the Democrat majority. And they’re pouring millions more into dark money groups, nonprofits, and trade associations that aren’t required to disclose the source of their funding. Several congressional aides said they had more influence over the bills than any they’ve worked on in years.
According to ad analytics service AdImpact, the companies poured $130 million into ad campaigns, mostly targeting swing states like Georgia, New Hampshire and Arizona. Many of the ads implied that Democrats could lose the Senate and Republicans could miss their chance for a legislative majority if they back the legislation.
The campaign argued that the bills would destroy Google search and Amazon Prime and disrupt the global economy. Amazon and the tech-funded nonprofit Connected Commerce brought dozens of small business owners to Washington to argue they were going to suffer. Google has tapped former national security officials on its payroll to say the bills could harm national security. Apple poured money into a pro-market group, the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, to start the “App Security Project,” which argued the bills would leave phones vulnerable to hacking and espionage.
The top executives of the companies worked in the halls. Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai met with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and a close ally of President Biden.
“There was very vigorous lobbying against this legislation,” Coons said in an interview. “Each of us has seen dozens of TV ads, emails and social media posts.” He added that he sympathizes with some of the tech leaders’ concerns, including arguments that the bills could hurt the US’s ability to compete with China .
During markup, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act passed 16-6. But a handful of Democrats channeling big tech talk asked Klobuchar to address their concerns.
The coalition of small tech companies — including Yelp Inc., DuckDuckGo and Proton AG — joined civil society groups and created an “anti-big tech” infrastructure that met every Friday to strategize. “It was a historic moment,” said Kate McInnis, senior public policy manager at DuckDuckGo.
The Open App Markets Act passed the Senate Judiciary Committee 20-2 in early February, but splits have occurred. During the serve, conservative Republican John Kennedy of Louisiana criticized Klobuchar. “I’m tired of being told if I ask a question I’m in Big Tech’s pocket,” Kennedy said.
He later told allies he was on his way.
“You don’t generally convince senators by trying to force-feed them,” Kennedy said in an interview. “They either gag or spit it out.”
Although Grassley counted 20 Republican votes, more GOP senators dropped their support.
Beginning in February, Senators such as Coons, Vermont Democrat Patrick J. Leahy and Georgia’s Jon Ossoff proposed changes to issues such as privacy and cybersecurity, many of which were initially raised by the companies. They noted that Klobuchar’s office was unwilling to make any significant changes.
Klobuchar’s office said it had made over 150 changes to its legislation, some based on feedback from other offices.
Meanwhile, ads surged in swing states with vulnerable Democrats.
They have served their purpose. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Mark Kelly of Arizona have urged Senate leaders to delay billing the bills ahead of the election.
By March, Schumer’s office vowed to get the legislation to have its say, but told supporters of the bills they would have to show they had the required 60 votes.
Later that spring, a group of internet law academics, some of whom had been funded by Google, argued that the law could hurt tech companies’ ability to remove misinformation and hate speech from their platforms. This proved fatal.
Four Democratic senators began urging Klobuchar to change the legislation. Here the employees negotiated a new language. But the compromise was fatal: if Klobuchar made language-related changes, the bill would lose Republicans. Without the changes, the Democrats left.
Supporters kept the momentum going into the fall with protests, publicity campaigns, public letters and rallies on Capitol Hill. But by November, when Klobuchar attended a book party, it became increasingly clear the fight was over. She addressed the party and said she would “try” to pass the law.
Cicilline said he was “frustrated” that Schumer didn’t ultimately submit the bills to a vote. “It’s just wrong,” he added.
The proponents are already regrouping, full of hope.
“Big tech is delaying the inevitable and the bigger fight rages on,” said Alex Harman of the Economic Security Project. “They don’t win, they just lose in slow motion.”