U.S. Government Moves to Take on Big Tech

Posted on June 11, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Social with 39 Comments

Photo credit: Paul Thurrott

Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives today introduced several bipartisan bills aimed at curbing and even reversing the power of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. The proposals come about 9 months after the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust issued a report claiming that the firms are monopolies that abuse their market power.

“Right now, unregulated tech monopolies have too much power over our economy,” said David Cicilline, Representative from Rhode Island and the chairman of the antitrust subcommittee. “They are in a unique position to pick winners and losers, destroy small businesses, raise prices on consumers and put folks out of work. Our agenda will level the playing field and ensure the wealthiest, most powerful tech monopolies play by the same rules as the rest of us.”

There are five bills.

The first, ominously titled the Ending Platform Monopolies Act, seeks to break up these companies by making it illegal for online platforms to own businesses that are essentially conflicts of interest because they advantage their own products over those of competitors. For example, Facebook would have to give up Instagram and WhatsApp, and Google would have to spin off YouTube. And Amazon could no longer offer copycat products that compete with companies that rely on the e-commerce site to sell their own products.

The second act targets the anticompetitive app stores offered by Apple and Google. Dubbed the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, this would prevent Apple and Google from setting prices and conditions for apps developers. This one appears to line up nicely with the complaints we’ve seen from companies like Spotify, Sonos, and others.

The Platform Competition and Opportunity Act would ban Big Tech from purchasing competitors to remove them as threats. This is a practice all four of these companies engage in, as do other companies, like Microsoft and Salesforce, that were not specifically named.

The Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching (ACCESS) Act seeks to improve competition by forcing companies to let consumers move their personal data between platforms. This bill is based on a recent legal requirement that forces U.S. wireless carriers to easily move their phone numbers when they move to different carriers.

And the Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act follows a similar bill that already passed the U.S. Senate. It basically helps fund the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice Antitrust Division by charging much higher fees when companies notify the government of large mergers.

The most interesting thing about these proposals is that they’re happening at all in today’s highly partisan environment. But with Big Tech, Democrats and Republicans have seemingly found common ground, with one congressional aid describing the firms as “too big to care” about competing fairly.

The moves should also help to quell criticism of the European Commission, which has aggressively pursued U.S. Big Tech firms with similar complaints.

Tagged with , ,

Join the discussion!


Don't have a login but want to join the conversation? Become a Thurrott Premium or Basic User to participate

Comments (39)

39 responses to “U.S. Government Moves to Take on Big Tech”

  1. lvthunder

    It will be interesting to see if the first three survive in court.

    • bart

      I would be amazed if it would. We can only hope.

    • bkkcanuck

      My expectation is that the courts would defer to the Congress ability to regulate interstate commerce and corporations. The Glass-Steagall Act remained the law of the land from the point of Congress enacting it to the point of Congress gutting it... This regulated a corporations ability to compete in different markets or verticals.

  2. RobertJasiek

    Heaven is near! (If these bills are adopted.)

    "forcing companies to let consumers move their personal data between platforms": Such as then saving and exporting iPadOS/Safari bookmarks as HTML file.

  3. crunchyfrog

    They say a camel is a horse built by committee. I think we'll get a big ugly camel out of these bills.

    • SvenJ

      That's my concern. Regardless of whether big tech need to be reined in, our congress is not the body to do it. It is full of people who believe islands will tip over if you put too many people on one end and the Cal fires were caused by Jewish Space Lasers. These are the people who are going to regulate technology?

  4. IanYates82

    I wonder if they'll force a way to allow content purchased on platform X to be used on platform Y. Lots to work out there, mainly due to platform makers taking a cut.

    Even a discounted way of doing it would be helpful.

    Eg, those say Apple doesn't have a monopoly may be right in the scheme of "the mobile phone market". However, if you face the prospect of having to repurchase apps again on the competing platform that's hardly appealing. Subscriptions - eg Adobe, office 365, and the obvious ones like music & video services - help a lot here. Maybe it's a problem being solved more by developers after all?

    Anyway, any law is potentially a double-edged sword but some kind of reform is needed

    • bettyblue

      What you are proposing impacts the developer and not Apple or Google.

      If I suddenly went crazy and decided to sell my iPhone and go Android (god help me) I would have to re-buy apps that I had on the iPhone which = more sales for the developers because I lost my mind.

    • MoopMeep

      That would be nice. Worst offender Microsoft Minecraft. Java edition, bedrock edition…. Isn’t there also a special windows 10 version?

      all i know is I bought the latest version for the kids and then I have to buy it again…. On the same platform because the Java version is better? I should get both for free

  5. madthinus

    Introducing bills are easy, getting them passed in both houses and signed, not so much. Pretty sure all of these will be gutted by self interest by the time the land on President Biden's desk. Such is the power of lobbying and all Big Tech have learned that game well after Microsoft got taken to the Anti trust court in the 90's.

    • bkkcanuck

      Not to mention the current Republican Party has shown a willingness/enthusiasm to killing bipartisan legislation just because they did not want to give the governing Democratic Party a perceived win.

  6. mikegalos

    Interesting that the "Big Tech" companies in trouble are Numbers 1,3,4 and 5 but not the second largest tech company.

  7. shark47

    This is a good start. Amazon, Apple, and Google are all behaving like Microsoft in the 90s - using their dominance in one space to make a big push in other markets. For Apple, it's not just the app store. The Apple Watch was such a big hit because of its deep integration into the Apple ecosystem, something which competitors lack.

    • shark47

      I guess you could force Apple to either spin off these businesses or force them to give competitors the same level of integration.

      For Amazon, I think it becomes a little more complicated. Amazon competes not only with other retailers like Walmart, but also with third party sellers that sell on its marketplace.

  8. navarac

    As politicians the world over have their own personal axes to grind, this is going to be like "Jarndyce v Jarndyce in the court of Chancery" in Charles Dickens' novel 'Bleak House' all over again.

  9. red.radar

    Does this effect Walmart and their in house brands? No more Great Value toasted O's sitting next to the Cheerios? I wouldn't be upset if the answer was yes, Just curious how deep this goes.

    • red.radar

      I wonder if this means that Microsoft has to divest it's game studios because they own the Xbox/PC Platform? Can Nitendo not make or sell product on their platform either?

      This probally needs some refactoring because if interpretted literally... this means the platform maker can't make content to help drive the platform.

      Or will we have this goofy business transaction where a powerless third party company fascilitates the transactions and set the rules, but the Platform maker can still evolve the platform and develop applications for said platform?

  10. Chris_Kez

    Kind of amazing that the big cable and internet service providers continue to skate by when they are among— if not the most consumer and competition-hostile monopolies.

  11. Jorge Garcia

    Windows is/was fine the way it way as-is imo (even though the UI inconsistency will always be a valid gripe). So new coats of paint are almost pointless by now as I feel that everyone who cares about all those cutesy things has already "discovered" MacOS and has made the switch. The much bigger issue to me is that Windows can't just keep ignoring the Android app ecosystem while Apple's is making an effort to integrate iPad apps into the MacOS interface. In my opinion, both MS and Apple's unification approaches are wrong (Apple's is wrong by design, purposefully crippling iPadOS to extract more Mac sales, and Microsoft's is pathetic or simply dead-ended). But Samsung's approach does make all the sense in the world to me. I would have long ago partnered with Samsung to make "Microsoft DeX" the out-of-the-box user interface for consumer-facing laptops and desktops, and keep a copy of full Windows 10 at the ready as the secondary OS, accessible via a boot menu, and easily default-able with via a one-time dialog box. But I guess that's why I'm not CEO of anything but my one-man design business :-). I'll stop.

    • bkkcanuck

      The effort to integrate iPad apps into macOS from development point of view is just a fact of market forces. iPads outsell Macs by 3 to 1. The iPad was created as an offshoot of iOS the software started out segregated from macOS. There is more active development taking place in the iPadOS environment, and more legacy power apps on the macOS. Catalyst was focused on easing porting iPadOS apps that are not available (and may never would have) been available on macOS. SwiftUI provides common UI development language to develop cross platform apps. By unifying the market for the two devices, they both enlarge and make more lucrative the market as a whole... it also expands the number of apps that are and will be available for both platforms.

      I currently see no way to modify the iPadOS to make it do everything that macOS does without taking away some of the features that make iPadOS what it is. I also see no way to modify macOS to be everything that iPadOS is. Both of those devices have different strengths and focus. ONLY a minority of users actually NEED both devices (and only 30% of iPad owners own a Mac -- and less than 15% use the iPad for anything more than consumption devices [the lower end of the iPad range]). Power/pro users may have functionality where the iPadOS makes more sense for certain tasks (iPad Pro could easily be used for initial on location colour grading for filming - maybe something like an specialized app 'First Cut Pro X'??), while Macs make more sense for multicamera production (Final Cut Pro X). Each device has it's strenths. For your average user it comes more down to preference and for those that are using it for browsing the web, writing emails, messaging etc. (the 80% non-power users) do not need both a Mac and an iPad.

      I have been advocating for Apple to actually invest development time in making the iPad and Mac work together seamlessly for those that need or want both devices (so I am very happy with what I am seeing in Universal Control -- which I expect is just the beginning). At the same time both the iPad and Mac should work just as well (hopefully better each year) as devices on their own. Personally, I see this as a win-win.

      If Apple is to develop a device that sits somewhere inbetween (different strengths) it the unifying of development would make it much easier to have an app ready with the functionality needed within a few months of it's announcement at WWDC.

      Apple works on long term strategic plans and put in place features that look cool or ok when they are announced, but only in hindsight do we realize that there was a long term vision that we only see near the end of the implementation (i.e. LiDAR in iPhone 12 Pro and now Object Capture the following year).

  12. will

    This will be interesting to watch over the next couple of years. I would guess these bills will get changed, updated, and some may not make it, but I do agree that BIG TECH does need to have better rules to follow.

  13. bettyblue

    Where is the bill to shut down Twitter :). Big Tech simply has way too much power across many aspects of peoples lives.

    • Paul Thurrott

      Twitter isn't a monopoly.

      • bettyblue

        Don’t care if it’s a monopoly. It is the sewer of the Internet filled with hate and bias.

        • navarac

          That is just YOUR view, of course. Someone else may think the opposite. Just saying.

        • miamimauler

          That's irrelevant. They can't shut down services for that reason. If they did half the bloody internet would disappear.

    • crunchyfrog

      Twitter only has power because people use it. Once people realize that social media is a cancer and drastically reduce using it, things will change on their own.

  14. beckoningeagle

    Right to repair is missing. Some of these are a bit extreme though.

    • bettyblue

      Right to repair should force vendors to create multiple models to satisfy that need.

      The slim hard to repair models we have now and the easier to repair models that are fatter/thicker, less water proof and usually have less battery life. Let consumers choose.

      I bet the choose the current models 98% of the time.

      • lvthunder

        So you are in favor of forcing companies to create products that won't sell well?

        • bettyblue

          Not at all. I think right to repair is stupid. Don’t buy the products if you don’t like them.

          I have had screens and batteries replaced and it’s no big deal.

          Can the average consumer repair a Microwave oven or a Xbox/PS???

          • bkkcanuck

            Pretty much all of the right to repair advocacy is NOT about forcing design changes in the devices, it is about being able to get replacement parts for devices as they are currently manufactured as well as board level schematics so that independent repair people can actually repair devices rather than throwing them away. In many cases chip level components are not available from suppliers that make them because as part of the contract with the manufacturer they are not allowed to sell to repair shops (and that mostly includes generic parts not IP related material). So no, IMHO it is not stupid to put such legislation in place.

            If companies like Apple want to control the supply of such components, I have no problem with them requiring that each component used be logged along with the serial number of the device (and also that the device is out of warranty) . The repair people should be able to get components in a timely manner so maybe restrict in stock supplies of unused components at the repair shop to maybe 5 or so of each (or a number based on how often they are used - so low volume parts would be 2 per, and high volume parts higher quantity for example).

            There are two things I would implement in law though, one would be 2 or 3 year minimum warranties [some EU countries have 2], the cost difference is actually nominal but then it digs into a very profitable upselling of services. The other would be right to repair legislation that allows devices to be in use longer without requiring design changes.

  15. elessar25

    Social media companies should be treated like a postal service. You send a message and the company ensures it reaches the recipient(s). The censorship has got to stop.

    • bluvg

      *not that free speech applies in this case

    • bkkcanuck

      So you are saying Paul should stop deleting spam? (this is a small social media platform in that members are posting their opinions). These are private companies, and the private companies have a vested interest in not allowing things on their platform that cause financial damage or damage to the companies reputation. If you are a company who's main business is selling advertising to advertisers, then moderating and making it an attractive platform for advertisers to advertise (and a lot of that is done through global policies).

    • bluvg

      Mail fraud is also not allowed, and free speech is not unlimited.

    • crunchyfrog

      This has been tried and can never work. The politicians are trying to hold the social media companies responsible for other peoples posts if they are hate filled or too political.

    • thejoefin

      isn't that called email?