Senators warned Apple and Google on Wednesday that an antitrust crackdown is coming — and the warning was bipartisan.
Democrats zeroed in on the companies’ overwhelming market power, which they say is demonstrated in their app stores. Republicans railed against the companies’ censorship of online content that they said picked sides on political and cultural issues.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat who leads the Senate’s antitrust panel, told Apple and Google that just because their businesses are successful and consumers like them, they will not exempt them from antitrust laws. She focused on the companies’ purported actions to exclude competitors from their app stores and the fees they charge.
“We’re not angry about success, we simply want to make sure that capitalism keeps going in a strong, strong way that’s fair to everyone,” Ms. Klobuchar said.
Ms. Klobuchar urged the Senate to take up her overhaul of antitrust laws that she said would remedy concerns over the companies’ app stores and pushed for more resources for federal antitrust enforcers.
Spending more taxpayer money on antitrust enforcement is one area where Democrats and Republicans share some agreement. The antitrust panel’s top Republican, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, previously expressed support for more resources for the enforcers.
Mr. Lee made clear at the hearing that large technology companies should not count on GOP lawmakers, who traditionally have protected business interests, to get them out of an antitrust jam.
“If Big Tech is going to take a side in the culture wars or in political conversations, Big Tech should be prepared for the greater scrutiny that will come with that unfortunate choice and with that harmful choice,” he told Apple and Google.
Mr. Lee pointed to Apple and Google‘s decisions to remove the social media platform Parler from their app stores as one indicator that the companies do not think they have meaningful competition. Both companies banished the app, popular with conservatives and supporters of former President Donald Trump, from their stores after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
Mr. Lee said the decision to remove Parler was not necessarily an antitrust violation but symptomatic of larger problems. While he said he was pleased that Apple told him it would restore Parler’s access, he remained upset about the tech companies’ behavior.
“I am very pleased with this outcome but I’m as pleased with the outcome, in many ways, as I am very dismayed that it took three and a half months and the intervention of a United States senator in order to get there,” Mr. Lee said. “It’s dumbfounding to me.”
Republicans’ battle with the tech companies over Parler’s removal is not the only feud Apple has been fighting. The company first declined to make anyone available for the hearing but ultimately relented after Ms. Klobuchar and Mr. Lee wrote to Apple‘s CEO.
Apple chief compliance officer Kyle Andeer insisted Wednesday that the company faces fierce competition and it relished its battle with competitors.
“Apple after all was started by tinkerers and dreamers and we became successful over time because we had an opportunity to compete. We were in a street fight back then and we still are today and we like it that way,” said Mr. Andeer.
Google described its relationship with app competitors in collaborative terms instead of as an antagonist preventing real rivals from emerging in the marketplace.
“The way we’ve designed our business model is to align our interests with our developer interests,” Wilson White, Google public policy and government relations senior director, said to Mr. Lee. “So we only get paid when our developers are engaging in the sale of digital content and only when that sale occurs in the app itself.”
Critics of both companies say their app stores’ structures individually inhibit app developers’ success. Ms. Klobuchar noted that Apple operates in a “walled garden” where only its App Store can service apps on its devices, while Google is functionally the dominant app provider on its Android devices.
Advocacy groups of differing political stripes have lined up against the large technology companies. Fight for the Future, a tech activist group opposed to Apple and Google, called on lawmakers on Wednesday to lead the charge against Apple‘s App Store. The group’s “Abolish the App Store” campaign seeks to demonstrate to lawmakers the public’s opposition to the tech behemoth.
The conservative Media Research Center, meanwhile, released a “Big Tech Report Card” on Wednesday that gave Apple an “F” in online freedom, while Google graded a “D.”