Lawmakers release documents they say make the case for tougher regulation; tech companies dispute need for change
WASHINGTON—Facing a potential stalemate, lawmakers backing an antitrust bill targeting big tech companies ramped up their push for a vote Tuesday by releasing new internal tech company documents that they say show anticompetitive behavior.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.) and Rep. David Cicilline (D., R.I.), the chairman of that panel’s antitrust subcommittee, called for a vote on legislation that would make it illegal for the largest tech platforms to favor their own products and services over those of competitors.
The lawmakers released documents gathered in an investigation that concluded in 2020 of Amazon.com Inc., AMZN -5.23%▼ Alphabet Inc.’s GOOG -2.56%▼ Google, Meta Platforms Inc. META -4.50%▼ and Apple Inc., AAPL -0.88%▼ which they said support allegations that the companies have leveraged their popular platforms to unfairly boost proprietary side businesses.
Tech companies oppose the legislation, saying it would unnecessarily raise the costs of operating platforms that are popular because they benefit consumers and small businesses.
The bill banning self-preferencing has been approved by the House committee and its Senate counterpart, with support from many Democrats and a small group of Republicans. But it hasn’t received a vote on the floor of either chamber. Another bill under consideration would target Apple and Google’s smartphone app stores.
Supporters’ lobbying of late has targeted Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), who controls the Senate calendar.
Fight for the Future, an advocacy group that supports the legislation, says it has been paying a truck to drive past Mr. Schumer’s residence displaying a video billboard that calls on him to hold a vote. The American Principles Project, another group that supports the bills, published an op-ed in June noting that public lobbying disclosures in New York state show one of Mr. Schumer’s daughters has represented Amazon in Albany.
The Democratic leader hasn’t publicly committed to holding a vote, though the legislation’s primary Senate backer, Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) has said Mr. Schumer promised her he would call one.
“I’m working with Sen. Klobuchar,” Mr. Schumer told reporters Tuesday. “I support these bills. I want to bring them to the floor. We have to see that we have 60 votes.”
The advocates’ midsummer push is driven in part by a recognition that tech companies have a structural advantage in the legislative fight: If Congress does nothing, the companies win.
The Senate is scheduled to begin its summer recess the week of Aug. 8, and major legislation is expected to become harder to pass in the fall, when campaigning ramps up ahead of the November election.
The documents released Tuesday were first cited in a House report published in 2020, but hadn’t been previously released in full.
Several documents show Google executives discussing how to boost Google Search and other products via the Google-owned Android mobile operating system.
In one 2013 email chain discussing requirements Google would impose on equipment manufacturers using Android, a Google executive described a directive from Sundar Pichai, who was then overseeing products and is now the company’s chief executive, about requirements for the placement of Google products: “We should be more prescriptive.”
The House committee cited that document as evidence of anticompetitive self-preferencing by Google.
“Dominant platforms abuse their monopoly power to destroy competition, exploit other businesses, harm consumers and impede disruptive innovation,” said Mr. Cicilline. “The facts are not in doubt, and the solutions are clear…it is time for Congress to act.”
In response, a Google spokesman said, “the Committee’s cherry-picked documents show consistent competition and a focus on delivering high-quality services to Android users.”
“Free services like Google Search, Maps and Gmail help people every day, and Android has created more choices at lower costs. Americans simply don’t want Congress to break Google’s products or harm the free services they rely on,” he said.
A 2010 internal Amazon email shows the results of an internal case study in which an Amazon marketplace seller who uses the company’s “fulfillment by Amazon” service would be more likely to win top placement on a product page than a seller who didn’t.
The House committee said this shows Amazon favoring sellers who pay for its add-on delivery and storage service.
An Amazon representative didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Another document, a Facebook internal report from 2018, analyzed whether Meta Platforms-owned Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp would eventually cannibalize each other’s users. “It remains unclear whether Instagram and Facebook can coexist,” the document says.
The House committee said the internal analysis demonstrated how Facebook’s 2012 acquisition of Instagram removed a potential competitor from the market—a central issue in a continuing Federal Trade Commission lawsuit accusing the company of an illegal monopolization campaign.
Meta Platforms is fighting that suit. A spokesman said Tuesday the documents had been provided to the committee years earlier.
“The full record confirms what we have said from the beginning of these proceedings—that we operate in a highly competitive space, and our acquisitions have been good for competition, good for advertisers and good for people,” he said.
Meta Platforms hasn’t taken a public position on the antitrust legislation, though it backs advocacy groups who oppose it.
Groups bankrolled by tech giants have spent more than $36 million on TV and internet ads making their case that the legislation could add to inflation or make it harder to offer popular services.
The tech companies also say it is fair for platforms such as e-marketplaces, search engines and app stores to profit off their own innovations.
Both supporters and opponents of the legislation insist that if a vote is held, their side will prevail.
Ms. Klobuchar has privately said there are more than 60 votes in favor of the bill in the Senate, said one person who met with her in recent weeks.
Tech company representatives question that assertion, pointing to evidence that some senators’ support is wavering. In a June 14 letter, Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and three other Democrats asked Ms. Klobuchar to change a part of the bill making it unlawful for tech platforms to discriminate in the application of their terms of service.
The provision could make it harder for the platforms to remove content deemed to violate their hate-speech and misinformation policies, the senators wrote.
The bills’ supporters counter that the legislation has language narrowing its scope to focus on competition issues, rather than content moderation.
In a statement Tuesday, Ms. Klobuchar said the newly released documents “expose the problem in black and white” and “only add to our growing momentum to take action.”