Big Tech mounting big-money fight to defeat corporate antitrust bill
Amazon - Jeff Bezos, pictured on Sept. 6, 2013. [AFP]

Amazon and tech giants are mounting a big-money push to tank bipartisan antitrust legislation its proponents say rightly takes on concentrated corporate power undermining small businesses and democracy.

Introduced in October by lead co-sponsors Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa.), the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (S.2992) is coming up against negative media and spending blitzes ahead of a possible vote later this month.

Bloomberg reported Monday that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has promised a vote on the legislation this month, noting the narrow window ahead of the August recess.

The bill would, among other provisions, prevent major platforms like Amazon and Google from giving preferential treatment to their own products.

According to a report released last week by the Center for American Progress, the measure would "protect American consumers, small businesses, and innovation online."

Industry lobby groups and major tech firms, however, are "going all out" against the bill, Axios reported Monday.

Dharmesh Mehta, Amazon's vice president of worldwide selling partner services, for example, "recently tried lobbying third-party sellers on an online forum that they use to communicate with one another about hot topics" to encourage them to oppose the measure, according to CNBC. "I want to ensure that you are aware of this legislation and what you can do to try and stop it from harming you," he wrote in part, and directed sellers to a contact-your-senator form. CNBC added:

Hundreds of sellers replied to Mehta's post, including many who seemed unconvinced by Amazon's point of view and promised to support the legislation. Third-party sellers, who account for more than half of Amazon's retail volume, have in recent years expressed frustration over the costs they pay to stay in good standing, the amount Amazon charges them for ads, and Amazon's inability to rid the marketplace of scams and bad actors.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive vice president Neil Bradley also came out swinging against the bill, writing in a Monday blog post that it would afford "unprecedented authority to bureaucrats at the FTC and DOJ allowing them to micro-manage the American economy and pick winners and losers in the marketplace." And in a letter to senators last week, the chamber called it "misguided" and urged lawmakers to vote against it.

To help achieve that aim, as a Washington Post analysis published Monday highlighted, "tech trade associations and groups with ties to industry giants are... launching a major advertising blitz that's increasingly targeting swing-state Democrats."

The Post reported:

"CCIA—a trade group that counts Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google as members—took out over $8 million in TV ads earlier this year primarily targeting swing states like Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Wisconsin, according to the independent news site the Lever. CCIA also took out over $2 million in ads in New Hampshire, according to the New Hampshire Journal. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

In recent months, another group called New Democracy has "taken out at least $167,000 in Facebook ads and over $218,000 in Google ads that largely call on a narrow set of swing-state Democrats to reject the bill," the Post added. "The ads have been shown at least 13 million times, according to a review by The Technology 202 of the companies’ digital advertising libraries."

Bloomberg also noted that "Apple, Amazon, Google, and [Facebook parent company] Meta spent $16.7 million lobbying in the first three months of 2022, with all four identifying the antitrust bills as their top priority, according to lobbying disclosures filed with Congress," referencing the Senate and House versions. And Apple, Axios reported Monday, "spent more on lobbying last quarter ($2.5 million) than in any previous quarter."

The money may have been well spent.

The legislation "passed the Senate Judiciary Committee with support from both parties earlier this year," Politico reported last month. However, "in the days since Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told Klobuchar he would hold a floor vote as early as [June], several Democratic senators have privately expressed deep reservations about voting for the legislation, particularly with a midterm election looming, in their conversations with Schumer and other Democratic offices."

Fight for the Future, a digital rights group backing the legislation, said in an email to supporters Tuesday that "a small faction of Senate Democrats may be betraying you for Big Tech."

"There is no question that these lawmakers, including Maggie Hassan (N.H.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), and Alejandro Padilla (Calif.), are being swayed by Big Tech lobbyists," the group wrote.

"But siding with Big Tech at the expense of passing legislation that would rein in monopolistic companies that abuse their gatekeeper status to undermine human rights, distort democracy, abuse our personal data, and stifle competition," said Fight for the Future, "is just wrong."

Stacy Mitchell, co-director at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, called Klobuchar's bill "simple, bipartisan, wildly popular with voters, and a good first step toward reining in Big Tech."

In a lengthy Twitter thread last week debunking Amazon's claim that the legislation would kill its Prime service, Mitchell wrote that the measure would stop the online retail giant and other Big Tech firms from "self-preferencing and market manipulation."

Its passage, she added, could bring about "the end of some of the most nakedly monopolistic tactics used by Big Tech."