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Big Tech was their enemy, until partisanship destroyed the battle plans



WASHINGTON – For all divisions in Washington, a cause that had united Republicans and Democrats in recent years was their animus against the power of the largest technology companies.

The top partisanship was to come together this week in a landmark House report covering a 15-month investigation of practices from Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. The report was set to include recommendations from lawmakers to rein in the companies, including the most comprehensive changes to U.S. antitrust laws in half a century.

But in recent days, support for the recommendations has largely split along party lines, said five people familiar with the talks, who were not authorized to speak in public because the discussions are private.

On Monday, the Democratic staff in the housing rights committee delayed the report’s release because they failed to get Republican support. Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the committee, has asked his colleagues not to support the Democratic-led report, said two people familiar with the discussions. And Representative Ken Buck, a Republican in Colorado, has circulated a separate report – entitled “The Third Way” – which pushes back against some of the Democrats’ legislative recommendations, according to a copy obtained by The New York Times.

Republicans’ main objections to the report are that some of the bills against the tech giants could hamper other businesses and hinder economic growth, said four people with knowledge of the situation. Several Republicans were also frustrated that the report did not address anti-conservative biases from technology platforms. Mr. Buck said in “The Third Way” that some of the recommendations were “a nonstarter for conservatives.”

Partial quarrels have cast a cloud over what would be Congress’ most aggressive action to limit the power of technology companies since Microsoft sued antitrust claims two decades ago. And while the House report may still be released this week, it is likely to lose some of its strength if Democrats, led by Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, chair of the antitrust subcommittee, fail to get many signatures from Republican members.

The unrest delays Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, even if only temporarily. The House committee was expected to accuse them of rising to the top of the global economy by devouring incipient rivals, bullying companies that needed them to reach users and reduce competition across the economy, said three people familiar with the report.

The report was also expected to launch other actions against the tech giants. The Ministry of Justice has been working on filing an antitrust complaint against Google, followed by separate lawsuits against the internet search giant from public prosecutors.

Mr. Cicilline declined to comment. Russell Dye, spokesman for Jordan, also declined to comment.

“I agree with Chairman Cicilline that big tech has been competitive,” Buck said in a statement. But, he added, “with such a significant problem, I am not surprised that there are a number of legislative options.”

The Housing Rights Committee began its investigation of the four technological giants in June 2019 with the support of both parties. The committee interviewed hundreds of rivals and business customers on the platforms, such as third-party sellers on Amazon and developers who distribute their apps via the Apple App Store.

In July, CEOs of tech behemoths – Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Google – testified in a hearing with the committee to defend their companies. Republican and Democratic lawmakers addressed sharp questions to CEOs, interrupting and repeatedly talking about them.

But the top party has eroded. Mr. Jordan, who became the committee’s top Republican this year, has been publicly skeptical of the investigation. He spent much of his time in the July hearing attacking CEOs of the platforms’ alleged bias against conservatives, and deviated from the session’s stated focus on antitrust laws and Silicon Valley’s market power.

Last week, the committee’s democratic staff presented the draft report to all members of the committee who wanted to review it, said a person with knowledge of the case. Lawmakers were not allowed to bring a copy of the draft, the person said.

On Friday, staff received new evidence of Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram in 2012 to include in the report, which also delayed it, according to a person familiar with the investigation.

Mr. Jordan now has no plans to sign the Democrats’ report, one person said. His reluctance to support the report could lead to other Republicans on the committee withholding the signatures.

Mr. Buck shared his own report, “The Third Way,” in recent days. It supports several recommendations of the committee’s Democrats, including providing more resources to federal antitrust agencies and making limited legislative changes to strengthen enforcement of antitrust laws. But it pushes back against other proposals, such as not allowing companies online to compete on the platforms they operate, calling it a “thinly veiled call to break up Big Tech companies,” according to the draft obtained by The Times.

Mr. Jordan’s office was not involved in the preparation process for Mr. Bucks’ “third way,” said a person familiar with the matter. The document was previously reported by Politico.

The Antitrust Act last underwent a major change almost 50 years ago, when new rules were adopted regarding merger notifications. The Hart-Scott-Rodino Act of 1976 required companies to notify the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice – the main antitrust enforcement agencies – of major mergers. These laws are now seen by technology critics as insufficient to take into account the power of companies to rapidly expand into new markets and kill young competitors.

William Kovacic, former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, said the Judiciary Committee’s antitrust report “has the potential to be the most influential study of its kind since the 1970s.” He added: “It can lead to really big changes, but any changes will come slowly.”


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