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How A Group Of Bills Working Their Way Through Congress Could Change Our Relationship With Big Tech

View of Silicon Valley from an airplane
Patrick Nouhailler /Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
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An aerial view of tech mecca, Silicon Valley.

From Texas Standard:

After years of hand-wringing about how big and powerful tech companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple have become, Washington now seems poised to do something about it. Last week the House Judiciary Committee approved a handful of bills that seek to reign in technology companies' plans to grow.

Gilad Edelman is a political writer for Wired. He told Texas Standard that the six bills passed by the House committee fit into two categories: enhancing antitrust regulation and addressing what some see as abuse of power by Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple.

"The two most ambitious, and for that reason, controversial, bills are addressing the ability of dominant platforms to use their power to their own advantage," Edelman said.

One of the bills would keep companies like Apple or Google from giving preferences to services or other products they produce like web browsers or search engines. The idea is to make it easier for someone with an iPhone or an Android phone to find and use services from competing companies. The bill could also apply more directly to commercial products like those produced and sold by Amazon. Without the ability to preference its own products, Amazon would, in theory, provide a more level playing field for those who also sell those products through its platform.

Edelman says another of the bills under consideration would go further, preventing a platform owner from offering its own products on that platform if it also allowed competitors to do so.

"This bill appears to say Amazon can simply not sell its own products on its platform," Edelman said.

While Congress considers new laws, the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, has been pursuing antitrust action against Facebook whose business strategy includes buying up its rivals in the social networking space. On Monday, a federal judge dismissed an FTC suit against Facebook in a major blow to the federal and state governments who were plaintiffs. But Edeleman says the case isn't over.

"It's an interesting ruling," he said. "The judge basically said to win this kind of antitrust case, you have to prove that a company has what's called 'market power' – in other words, that they're so big and dominant that they can get away with doing stuff that's bad for consumers."

Edelman says the FTC didn't provide much of evidence to support that idea, but the court gave the government agency 30 days to return with a stronger case.

"It's kind of like if you had teachers who allowed you, if you did terribly on a test, you could do a retake," Edelman said. "The FTC gets a retake."

It's the job of newly appointed FTC chair, Lina Khan, who has been an advocate of strenuous regulation of the biggest tech companies, to oversee that retake.