This is the moment of truth for privacy and tech regulation in the US

After being left behind when it comes to tackling Big Tech by the EU and its own states, the US government is finally taking action. Maybe. 

In June, members of the US House of Representatives introduced six major bills to regulate Big Tech that, if passed, could create a more competitive internet and give people everywhere a real choice in how their data is accessed. 

These six bills address a variety of issues, from providing adequate funding to the Federal Trade Commission (the agency that oversees antitrust law and protects consumers) to making it illegal for Big Tech companies to consolidate their power by acquiring competitors (think of how Facebook purchased Instagram in 2012). These bills follow a scathing Congressional report, which was written after a 16-month investigation into Big Tech, found these companies abuse their power and harm businesses and consumers. 

Taken together, these bills are the first comprehensive effort the US government has made to rein in the power of Big Tech.

At Proton, we are dedicated to offering people everywhere an alternative to Big Tech’s version of the internet, one where you can choose who, if anyone, can access your data. It is encouraging to see US legislators finally taking action on privacy and competition issues.

Passing these bills would allow US citizens to finally return to a free and open internet. By putting some checks on Big Tech’s power and anti-competitive abuses, these bills would return control of the internet to the people.

Below, we examine each proposal in detail and explore what effects it could have on everyday citizens.

American Choice and Innovation Online Act

What it would do: 

  • HR 3816 would make it illegal for companies to self-preference their products on platforms they own.
  • It would also be illegal for a Big Tech company to make buying one of its goods or using one of its services (e.g., a payment processing service) a precondition for getting access to its platform.
  • It would require Big Tech companies to allow people to uninstall pre-installed software and apps and make it easier to change default settings.
  • It would not allow Big Tech companies to use a business owner’s data from their platform to compete with that business owner (unless the data was public).
  • It would establish a Bureau of Digital Markets within the Federal Trade Commission to enforce the act as a platform regulator.

Examples:

  • Google would not be allowed to display Google Shopping more prominently than other companies in its search results.
  • Apple would have to allow people to uninstall all of the pre-installed apps that come with iPhones.
  • Apple would also have to allow you to pay for an app in its App Store using different payment processing services. 
  • Amazon would not be able to unfairly monitor the search results of trending goods, preventing it from knowing which products to copy and start selling itself.

What it would mean for you:

  • As a customer, it would mean you could trust that the results from your search engine, app store, and shopping platform were truly the best results for your query and are unbiased. It also means you would be able to choose the product or service that is right for you without being “nudged” by a Big Tech platform operator.
  • As a business owner, it would mean that you could compete with Big Tech companies on a more level playing field.

This bill is very similar to the European Union’s Digital Markets Act in that it aims to increase the openness and interoperability of the internet by preventing Big Tech companies from abusing their status as gatekeepers of important platforms (e.g., search engines, mobile operating systems, shopping platforms, etc.).

Ending Platform Monopolies Act

What it would do: 

  • HR 3825 would prevent a Big Tech company that is the monopolist owner of a platform from selling goods or providing services on that platform and competing with its business users. 

Examples:

  • Amazon would not be able to sell its own goods on the Amazon website.
  • This could also potentially force Apple to split off its App Store.

What it would mean for you: 

  • As a business owner, it would mean you would not be forced to compete with Big Tech companies on their own platform where they hold incredible influence over your business. In addition to cloning popular products, the CEO of PopSockets testified Amazon abused its power and refused to clamp down on counterfeit products until his company agreed to spend $2 million on marketing with Amazon. 

Also known as the “Break Up Bill”, this is the strongest and most contentious antitrust bill currently being debated. It goes further than the American Choice and Innovation Online Act by arguing that companies that both operate a platform and compete on that platform will always face a conflict of interest, and the only way to resolve that conflict of interest is to break them up.

Platform Competition and Opportunity Act

What it would do: 

  • HR 3826 would ban Big Tech companies from purchasing competitors that would expand their existing market power.

Example:

  • If this law had been in place, it would have been much more difficult for Facebook to buy competitors like Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014.

What it would mean for you:

  • People everywhere would have a greater variety of companies and services to choose from.
  • It would force Big Tech companies to be more sensitive to what people want as there would be viable alternatives. 

This bill is meant to prevent dominant Big Tech companies from buying out would-be rivals before they can become a threat, something Facebook and Google have both done extensively in the past. As Mark Zuckerburg wrote in a 2008 email, “It is better to buy than compete.” 

Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching (ACCESS) Act

What it would do: 

  • HR 3849 would make it easier for everyone to move their data from one large communications platform to another by promoting interoperability, data security, and data portability.

Example:

  • You would be able to easily download your data from Facebook in a more usable format.
  • Startups would be able to use social media giants’ APIs to grow their service (like Vine did before Facebook cut it off).

What it would mean for you:

  • You would have greater control over your data and not be as locked in to a social network. 
  • You could potentially leave a social network but be able to communicate with your friends that still use the platform. 

This bill would only apply to platforms that have 100 million monthly users or more and generate their income by collecting, processing, or sharing user data. 

Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act 

What it would do: 

  • HR 3843 would increase the filing fees for mergers and ensure the FTC and the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division receive better funding.

Example:

  • It would lower the cost of filing for a merger for smaller companies while raising the costs on large, complex, and time-consuming mergers. The filing fee for a merger worth more than $5 billion would increase from $280,000 to $2.25 million.

What it would mean for you:

  • Big Tech mergers are complicated to assess and require tremendous amounts of staffing and funding. By increasing its funding, the FTC would be able to investigate merger requests more thoroughly, bring more violations to court, and prevent Big Tech companies from consolidating or abusing their power.

State Antitrust Enforcement Venue Act of 2021

What it would do: 

  • HR 3460 would give state attorneys general more control over which courts hear antitrust cases.

Example:

  • This bill is a response to Google’s attempt to move one of its multi-state antitrust suits from a Texas federal court to one in its home state of California.

What it would mean for you:

  • It would prevent Big Tech companies from placing pressure on court officers and local officials by threatening to slash jobs or move their headquarters.

Antitrust is a privacy issue

The internet is currently a hostile place for privacy. Some of the largest Big Tech companies rely on monitoring and recording your every click to generate revenue. No one likes this: In a 2019 Pew Research poll, 79% of US citizens said they are very or somewhat concerned about how companies use their data. They are looking for alternatives.

Unfortunately, Big Tech is large enough to wipe out any potential competitor, be it through a merger, locking them out of an app store, or burying them in search results (this happened to ProtonMail in 2016). As long as these companies are large enough to tilt the internet in their favor, it will be impossible for new, innovative, privacy-focused businesses to thrive. 

These proposed laws would give people the opportunity to choose privacy. 

We support these six bills – and call on US lawmakers to go further

These six laws could change the state of competition and privacy on the internet, but we feel they could go even further. These laws fail to address one of the critical ways Big Tech cements its advantage, which is why we call for lawmakers to let people choose their own default apps and prevent Big Tech companies from using pre-installed default apps to lock people into their ecosystem of apps and services. 

This is a critical moment. Big Tech is already fighting to maintain its dominance of the internet. US citizens and independent businesses must not let them succeed. 

If you are a US citizen and want an internet where you have true choice, contact your representative and tell them you support the bills listed above.

Let’s seize this moment and create a new internet where privacy is a real option.


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About the Author

Richie Koch

Prior to joining Proton, Richie spent several years working on tech solutions in the developing world. He joined the Proton team to advance the rights of online privacy and freedom.