Draft antitrust bills could take aim at tech giants like Apple

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Tim Cook congressional antitrust hearing: Should Tim Cook be worried about Congress breaking up Apple?
Tim Cook testified as part of an antitrust investigation.
Photo: C-SPAN

Efforts to regulate Big Tech continue with Democrats currently circulating drafts of antitrust bills that could affect the likes of Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google.

While there is every possibility that these draft bills morph over time, the biggest way they would currently affect Apple is by curtailing its ability to operate an app marketplace. This feeds into growing criticism about Apple’s control of the App Store, which has been the subject of investigation around the world.

CNBC, which broke the story, runs down a list of proposed bills. One, which seems like it could affect Apple, reads:

“Platform Anti-Monopoly Act: This bill, proposed by Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline, D-R.I., would prohibit dominant platforms from giving their own products and services advantages over those of competitors on the platform. It would also prohibit other types of discriminatory behavior by dominant platforms, like cutting off a competitor that uses the platform from services offered by the platform itself, and ban dominant platforms from using data collected on their services that isn’t public to others to fuel their own competing products, among several other prohibitions.”

Apple currently downgrades its own app listings in the App Store. The company likely would dispute that it falls afoul of provisions in this bill, although some rivals might disagree. The European Union currently has competition investigations looking into Cupertino’s ownership of the App Store and Apple Pay.

Questionable acquisitions

The other big part of the bills currently being circulated by House Democrats involves large mergers and allowing users to leave platforms with their data intact. The first of these, while certainly impacting the likes of acquisition-happy Facebook, would be less likely to affect Apple. Except for the pricey $3 billion Beats purchase in 2014, Apple typically buys much smaller companies valued under $500 million. Compare that to $19 billion for Facebook’s biggest acquisition (WhatsApp), $13.7 billion for Amazon’s biggest buy (Whole Foods) and $12.5 billion for Google parent company Alphabet’s biggest purchase (Motorola Mobility).

One of the bills would make it illegal for a platform with at least 500,000 monthly active U.S. users and a market cap over $600 billion to own a business that represents a conflict of interest. Another would raise the fees that companies have to pay to notify the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice Antitrust Division of big mergers. That’s hardly a deal-breaker for trillion-dollar tech giants, but still unlikely to be a popular move.

It’s not yet clear when these draft bills will be introduced. They follow a 16-month investigation by the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, resulting in a 449-page report.

Tech has long escaped antitrust scrutiny with the exception of the big Microsoft case a couple decades ago. Will we see a repeat of that, leveled at other tech giants, this decade? We’ll have to wait and see. Something certainly seems to be ramping up, however.

Source: CNBC