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House Democrats set to reshape antitrust law with 5 new bills

Big Tech is the focus of a package of five House bills that would prohibit Apple Inc., Inc., Facebook Inc., and Google parent Alphabet Inc. from engaging in anticompetitive behavior against rivals or buying potential competitors.

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Some of Big Tech’s fiercest critics are about to put legislation behind their words.

House Democrats, led by Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, reportedly are poised to introduce a package of five bills to shake up the U.S. antitrust climate. The most aggressive would let prosecutors sue to break up major tech companies by forcing the platforms to sell off lines of business if they represent a conflict of interest. Another bill under consideration would prohibit online platforms such as Amazon from giving their own products or services an advantage over those of rivals that depend on the same platforms to reach consumers.

Politico first reported the imminent announcement of the bills.

The raft of legislation is the end result of recommendations from a blockbuster House Judiciary Committee report last fall on competition in digital markets. During a series of panels, executives from Apple Inc. AAPL, -1.01%, Inc. AMZN, -0.07%, Facebook Inc. FB, -2.04%, and Google parent Alphabet Inc. GOOGL, -1.34% GOOG, -0.64% were accused of monopolizing various aspects of the online economy.

Cicilline, chairman of the House’s Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, has led the anticompetition charge on Capitol Hill, holding a string of hearings over the past year-plus.

“Mark my words: Change is coming. Laws are coming,” he warned in February, during the first in a planned series of hearings to “consider legislative proposals to address the rise and abuse of market power online and to modernize the antitrust laws.”

The arrival of the bills, expected any day, coincide with another round of antitrust travails for two of tech’s biggest companies this week. Inc. AMZN, -0.07% faces a possible fine of more than $425 million from Luxembourg’s data-protection commission, the CNPD, for alleged violations of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, according to a Wall Street Journal report Thursday.

Earlier this week, the Ohio attorney general sued Google parent Alphabet Inc. on the grounds it is a public utility. Additionally, French authorities fined Google $268 million after concluding the search-engine giant abused its dominance over ad sales and purchasing on its platforms to distort the market to its advantage.

French antitrust regulators have more than Google in their cross-hairs: They’re also looking at the online ad policies of Apple Inc. and Facebook Inc. in an all-out effort to rein in anti-competitive behavior. Last week, Facebook tried to avoid a fine by making commitments to placate regulators.

At least one competition expert argued the prospective bills go too far, and would strangle multiple markets.

“The bills are very broad and sweeping: They would prohibit almost everything that the big tech companies do beyond their narrow ‘core’ products,'” Sam Bowman, director of competition policy at the International Center for Law and Economics, said in an email to eLesor. “The objective is clearly to reduce Google to being a search engine and nothing else, Amazon to being a marketplace and nothing else, and so on, and for them to provide those services as stripped back ‘dumb pipes.'”

Still, Vasant Dhar, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, insists the larger point is that for the first time Big Tech is “being put on notice.”

“I think some of the bills will be stated somewhat generally, to allow the [Justice Department] and [Federal Trade Commission] to act when the weight of evidence is hard to ignore,” Dhar told eLesor.

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