Congress must pump the brakes on the American Innovation and Choice Online Act

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Antitrust is a hot topic in Washington lately. The pervasive reach of big technology companies into our personal lives and economy has drawn the attention and ire of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, but for different reasons. 

Many Democrats are increasingly wary of the size, power and reach of these companies and the effects they have on competition. Meanwhile, many Republicans are more concerned about what they see as aggressive censorship of conservative thought online, some seeing it as a violation of the First Amendment.

In response to these concerns, the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), has voted to advance the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICO). The committee’s House counterpart has also considered a similar bill. In the Senate, the bill is expected to get a floor vote in the coming year, with plenty of jockeying still to unfold.

But, will this legislation really solve these problems? Are they real problems in the first place? To what extent is this bill more about politics than adopting good policy?

While those questions need answers, a deeper dive into bills like AICO reveals a darker picture that every American—and conservatives in particular—should be concerned about: a transfer of authority away from private businesses to the progressive fringe within an administration that has long had big tech in its crosshairs, but has recently been more brazen about it. 

Just a few weeks ago, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called on audio streaming apps like Spotify to “continue doing more” to combat so-called “misinformation” on its platform.

The timing seems ironic, as millions relied on big tech companies during the COVID-19 pandemic when Americans were forced to do almost everything online from home, and during a time when international political and economic instability seemed to be rising as well.

At the forefront of the administration’s effort to crack down on Big Tech is the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), led by Chair Lina Kahn. Kahn has been vocal about her views on what one of the missions for the FTC should be—to make our society more equitable through punitive actions against market manipulators, however she may define manipulation. 

As agencies are given wide leeway to interpret the intent of Congress as they implement legislation, and since courts are generally deferential to agency interpretation, it is reasonable to assume that the effects of this legislation would impact a broad array of services that Americans rely upon.

Klobuchar claims that her bill will give FTC the authority to beef up antitrust enforcement, protect consumers from companies thwarting competition, limit the size of mergers and acquisitions, and make it illegal for firms to use their platforms to advantage their own products or those of their partners. 

For vertically integrated companies like Amazon and Google, that amounts to the government taking substantial control over key aspects of their day-to-day operations, as well as growth strategies, domestic and global. It essentially penalizes American companies for being too successful.

But why is that a problem? The battle between Walmart and Amazon to expand their market share has resulted in the proliferation of product offerings and services at lower prices and with greater convenience for consumers at all income levels. These companies didn’t do this by leveraging legal loopholes or using immoral tactics. They achieved their success through innovation and by creating extraordinary products and services that Americans have come to love and enjoy in our everyday lives.

Consider Google Maps for instance. Do you like it when Google shows you the nearest location of a restaurant you want to try? Or think about your Amazon Prime Membership? Two-day shipping on a large swathe of products makes it fast and easy for consumers to get what they want, when they want it.

Both of these services would become illegal under the statute of “self-preferencing”—a sales tactic that has been in use for literally 100 years. Of course, consumers are free to abstain from these services altogether.

The bottom line is clear: Klobuchar’s bill means less choice and convenience for consumers, the likelihood of higher prices, and more power in the hands of a government to pick and choose winners and losers in the economy.

Far from fixing any real problems, the bill is little more than a trojan horse for progressive policies that affect the largest companies in our country simply because some in Congress think they are too powerful. By appealing to conservatives’ concerns about censorship, progressives have cobbled together a coalition under a cloak of updating antitrust law that might just succeed.

Congress should step back and view this effort for what it really is: a massive extension of government control into the private sector with potential for disastrous impacts for consumers. Congress should not pick winners and losers by giving bureaucrats free rein to centrally plan the economy. This is why, in our history, antitrust law has been used judiciously due to its outsized impact on the economy.

The free-market principles that define the American system have been proven over and over again to promote innovation, value, and vast consumer choice. Government must establish an environment where business can grow and prosper, not handcuff and punish them for success.

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