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A chance for Congress to turn concern over Big Tech’s sway into action

If the largest platforms can’t be trusted to enforce even their own anticompetitive policies, then Washington has little choice but to act.

Lawmakers are introducing legislation that would target a number of Big Tech's “self-preferencing” practices.Jenny Kane/Associated Press

Lawmakers sound off on Big Tech plenty. But they have done precious little to restrain its often destructive power over our politics and economy.

Now comes an opportunity to take targeted, but meaningful action.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, and Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, announced last week that they will introduce legislation making it illegal for Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google to give their own products and services a leg up on the competition on their platforms.

A House committee has already approved a companion measure championed by Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline and Colorado Republican Ken Buck. And both houses of Congress should move quickly to approve the legislation and get it to the president’s desk for his signature.


The measure would target a number of “self-preferencing” practices. It would block Google from prioritizing its services in search results — by, say, displaying its travel booking service ahead of Expedia’s and Kayak’s even if the data show that consumers prefer them. And it would prevent Amazon from scouring the information it collects on third-party sellers on its site in order to develop copy-cat products.

Of course, Amazon isn’t the first retailer to develop so-called “private label” versions of products and sell them cheaply. Sears was doing the same thing a century ago.

But the e-commerce giant has especially detailed information on the sales and expenses of the companies that sell on its platform. And the company itself has acknowledged the impropriety of exploiting that information. In 2019, Nate Sutton, the company’s associate general counsel, told Congress that “we don’t use individual seller data directly to compete” with third-party sellers on the site.

But a Wall Street Journal investigation, published last year after interviews with 20 former employees and a review of company documents, found Amazon regularly violated its own policy.


In one case, an employee of Amazon’s private-label arm accessed a detailed sales report, with 25 columns of information, on a car-trunk organizer produced by a small Brooklyn company called Fortem.

In October 2019, Amazon started selling three trunk organizers of its own.

“You hit us with a big surprise,” one of Fortem’s cofounders, Oleg Maslakou, told the Journal after reviewing the data Amazon had compiled on his brand.

In recent days, Reuters published an investigation finding that Amazon “ran a systematic campaign of creating knockoffs and manipulating search results to boost its own product lines” in one of the company’s fastest-growing markets, India.

If the largest platforms can’t be trusted to enforce even their own anticompetitive policies, then Washington has little choice but to act.

To be sure, the bill before Congress, known as the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, would provide a small check on Big Tech’s powers. Last year, Amazon said its private-label brands accounted for just 1 percent of its $158 billion in annual sales, using a calculation that excluded Amazon devices like Echo speakers (voiced by “Alexa”) and Ring Doorbell cameras.

But the measure could make a tangible difference for the small and mid-sized businesses that increasingly rely on Amazon, Google, and Facebook to reach customers.

And it’s an important test of whether Democrats and Republicans can turn bipartisan concern over Big Tech’s sway into real change. With evidence of the platforms’ corrosive effects mounting, statements of outrage are no longer enough.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.