US House panel approves increase in antitrust enforcement budgets as Microsoft dodges the worst of Big Tech scrutiny
- The House Judiciary Committee approved on Wednesday a bill that would increase the budgets of antitrust enforcers, which has already passed the Senate
- Amid debate about antitrust bills targeting the likes of Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google, lawmakers are questioning whether Microsoft is skirting scrutiny
US Representative Jerrold Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, in an opening statement called the bills a “historic package of bipartisan legislation” aimed at “reining in anticompetitive abuses of the most dominant firms online”.
After more than three hours of discussion, the committee voted 29-12 to approve what has been viewed as the least controversial of the six bills – a measure to sharply increase the budgets of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division and Federal Trade Commission, which enforce antitrust law. It would also increase the filing fees for the biggest mergers.
The measure has already passed the Senate.
In what is expected to be a lengthy session, the committee next takes up a bill that would ensure that antitrust cases brought by state attorneys general remain in the court they select.
The companies have spent nearly the past two years under federal, state and congressional investigation into how they use their clout to fend off competition, extend their dominance into adjacent markets or abuse their dominance.
Of the remaining bills, two bills address the issue of giant companies, such as Amazon and Google, creating a platform for other businesses and then competing against those same businesses. One would require the competing business to be sold while the other would require platforms to refrain from favouring their own businesses.
A third bill would require a platform to refrain from any merger unless it could show the acquired company does not compete with it. A fourth would require platforms to allow users to transfer their data elsewhere.
Representative Jayapal of Washington state said that while Microsoft clearly exceeds the US$600 billion market capitalisation threshold laid out in four of the six bills before the Judiciary panel, another criterion might let the Redmond, Washington-based company off the hook.
“There’s another category which is: Are they a critical trading partner? Which means that they control somebody’s ability to access the marketplace,” Jayapal said in a brief interview during a break in the day-long hearing. “That, they may not qualify under.”
A company has to meet all of the criteria in the four tech-focused bills to be considered in scope.
Republican Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky challenged his colleagues on the committee to explain why Microsoft wouldn’t fall under the measures.
“I’m trying to figure out why one of the biggest offenders, of Big Tech, has mysteriously avoided the scrutiny of this committee and this broad swath of bills that seek to radically rewrite our antitrust law,” Massie said, waving a draft of the bill that he said was shared with Microsoft before it was public. “I’m talking about Microsoft.”
Democrat David Cicilline of Rhode Island, the chair of the antitrust subcommittee that drafted the bills, denied during the hearing that any company has been granted an exception. He said that the bill in question is based on previous legislation introduced in the Senate, so it wouldn’t have been hard to find draft text.
“There are no exemptions in these bills,” Cicilline said. “No company is exempted period.”
A final determination about which companies would be covered by the bills will be made by the enforcement agencies, Cicilline said. “Each of these bills is broadly applicable to firms that meet the definition of a covered platform,” Cicilline said, without saying whether Microsoft would be among them.
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The six bills are likely to be approved by the Judiciary Committee, but it’s unclear if they have enough support to pass the House. Their fate is even more uncertain in the Senate, where legislation needs at least 10 Republicans to pass, making it difficult for them to become law as written.
One change in four of the amendments to be offered Wednesday by Nadler would adjust the definition of “online platform” for the four tech-focused bills.
The current versions of the four bills refer to an “operating system” to define what services would fall under the scope of the bill. Nadler’s amendments would change that to “mobile operating system.”
The draft of the bill Massie displayed during the hearing, which was reviewed by Bloomberg News, didn’t mention operating systems at all in that definition. A Microsoft spokesman said the company didn’t request the change.
Asked during a break in the hearing whether Microsoft – which built its success through its Windows operating system for computers – would be in scope of the bills, Nadler said he “would think so”.