Big Tech Was Their Enemy, Until Partisanship Fractured the Battle Plans

WASHINGTON — For all the divisions in Washington, one issue that had united Republicans and Democrats in recent years was their animus toward the power of the biggest tech companies.

That bipartisanship was supposed to come together this week in a landmark House report that caps a 15-month investigation into the practices of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. The report was set to feature recommendations from lawmakers to rein in the companies, including the most sweeping changes to U.S. antitrust laws in half a century.

But over the past few days, support for the recommendations has split largely along party lines, said five people familiar with the talks, who were not authorized to speak publicly because the discussions are private.

On Monday, the Democratic staff on the House Judiciary Committee delayed the report’s release because they were unable to gain Republican support. Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the committee, has asked his colleagues not to endorse the Democratic-led report, said two people with knowledge of the discussions. And Representative Ken Buck, a Republican of Colorado, has circulated a separate report — titled “The Third Way” — that pushes back against some of the Democrats’ legislative recommendations, according to a copy obtained by The New York Times.

The Republicans’ chief objections to the report are that some of the legislative proposals against the tech giants could hamper other businesses and impede economic growth, said four people with knowledge of the situation. Several Republicans were also frustrated that the report didn’t address claims of anti-conservative bias from the tech platforms. Mr. Buck said in “The Third Way” that some of the recommendations were “a nonstarter for conservatives.”

The partisan bickering has cast a cloud over what would be Congress’s most aggressive act to curtail the power of technology companies since Microsoft stood trial on antitrust claims two decades ago. And while the House report may still be released this week, it is likely to lose some of its force if Democrats, led by Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, the chairman of the antitrust subcommittee, are unable to gain many signatures from Republican members.

The turmoil gives Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google a reprieve, even if only temporarily. The House committee was expected to accuse them of rising to the top of the global economy by gobbling up nascent rivals, bullying businesses that needed them to reach users and reducing competition across the economy, said three people familiar with the report.

The report was also expected to kick off other actions against the tech giants. The Justice Department has been working to file an antitrust complaint against Google, followed by separate suits against the internet search giant from state attorneys general.

Mr. Cicilline declined to comment. Russell Dye, a spokesman for Mr. Jordan, also declined to comment.

“I agree with Chairman Cicilline that big tech has acted anti-competitively,” Mr. Buck said in a statement. But, he added, “with a problem this significant, I’m not surprised that there’s a variety of legislative options.”

The House Judiciary Committee began its investigation into the four tech giants in June 2019 with bipartisan support. The committee interviewed hundreds of rivals and business clients of the platforms, such as third-party sellers on Amazon and developers who distribute their apps through Apple’s App Store.

In July, the chief executives of the tech behemoths — Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Google — testified in a hearing with the committee to defend their companies. Republican and Democratic lawmakers directed sharp questions at the chief executives, repeatedly interrupting and talking over them.

But the bipartisanship has eroded. Mr. Jordan, who became the committee’s top Republican this year, has been publicly skeptical of the investigation. He spent much of his time in the July hearing attacking the chief executives for their platforms’ alleged bias against conservatives, straying from the session’s stated focus of antitrust laws and Silicon Valley’s market power.

Last week, the committee’s Democratic staff made its draft report available to all members of the committee who wanted to review it, said a person with knowledge of the proceedings. The lawmakers were not allowed to take a copy of the draft with them, the person said.

On Friday, staff received new evidence about Facebook’s 2012 acquisition of Instagram to include in the report, which also delayed it, according to a person familiar with the investigation.

Mr. Jordan now has no plans to sign on to the Democrats’ report, one person said. His reluctance to endorse the report may cause other Republicans on the committee to withhold their signatures.

Mr. Buck shared his separate report, “The Third Way,” in recent days. It supports several recommendations made by the committee’s Democrats, including giving more resources to federal antitrust agencies and making limited legislative changes to empower enforcement of antitrust laws. But it pushes back against other proposals, like not allowing companies online to compete on platforms they operate, calling it a “thinly veiled call to break up Big Tech firms,” according to the draft obtained by The Times.

Mr. Jordan’s office was not involved in the drafting process for Mr. Buck’s “Third Way,” said a person familiar with the matter. The document was reported earlier by Politico.

Antitrust laws last underwent a major alteration nearly 50 years ago, when new rules were enacted around merger reviews. The Hart-Scott-Rodino Act of 1976 required companies to notify the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department — the main antitrust enforcement agencies — of large mergers. Those laws are now regarded by tech’s critics as insufficient in accounting for the companies’ power to quickly expand across new markets and kill off young competitors.

William Kovacic, former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, said the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust report “has the potential to be the most influential study of its kind since the 1970s.” He added, “It could lead to really big changes, but any changes would come slowly.”