NBC News: Can anyone rein in Big Tech? Activists look to statehouses

Originally published in NBC News

The battle over whether to break up Big Tech is heading to city halls and state capitals.

Frustrated with the pace of national change in Congress and the rest of Washington, some of the tech industry's critics are paying more attention to state legislatures and city councils as places where they can curtail the power of companies they say are too dominant.

The American Economic Liberties Project, an advocacy group that opposes the concentration of economic power, said it was announcing a new push Tuesday with a report showing how many proposals are bubbling up at the state and local level.

"A lot of people see these gigantic corporations as entities that must be dealt with by the federal government, and the solutions have to come out of the federal government, and that just isn't true," said Pat Garofalo, the group's director of state and local policy.

"There are ideas out there that don't require Washington," he said.

"There are ideas out there that don't require Washington."

Pat Garofalo, state and local policy Director of the American Economic liberties project

The 29-page report, which paints a picture of a shifting landscape in the debate over monopoly-style power, could serve as a toolkit for state lawmakers and local officials to copy ideas from elsewhere.

A bill passed the New York Senate this year to overhaul state antitrust law to ban "abuse of dominance" by corporations, a standard that is much broader than the one in federal antitrust law and closer to a European model.

Connecticut legislators are considering a tax on social media ads, an idea that Maryland has adopted as digital advertising has become a bigger part of the economy and fueled the rise of companies like Facebook and Google.

And in more than 70 states, counties and cities, lawmakers have capped the fees that delivery apps can charge restaurants, according to the report.

"If we were to wait for Congress to get to the point where they could pass something, we'd be waiting a very long time," said New York state Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from Queens who is sponsoring the "abuse of dominance" proposal.





Members of Congress have investigated tech companies for years, calling hearings and drawing up proposed changes to antitrust law. Some lawmakers released a package of bills in June; they are still far from becoming law.

At the same time, President Joe Biden has sparked optimism about possible stepped-up antitrust enforcement by picking critics of the tech industry for top government jobs, although it's still early in their tenure.

Gianaris and other New York officials opposed a deal to bring a new Amazon headquarters to his district in 2019. He said the fight helped set the stage for his legislation in Albany.

"That issue was very eye-opening in seeing the dangers of the power that a very small number of companies have amassed," he said. "That power translates beyond the business world, to politics and all spheres of life."

Republicans in Florida followed a similar logic this year when they passed a state law banning social media "deplatforming" of political candidates. Trade groups quickly sued to block the law.

The widening of the antitrust battlefield may pose a challenge for tech companies and their trade groups, which generally have less experience with state-level lobbying and regulation than some other economic sectors do.

But there's also no guarantee that stricter antitrust proposals or other legislation will make it through. The New York "abuse of dominance" bill passed the Senate on a party-line vote, with Democrats voting in favor. Because it didn't pass the Assembly, the process will start over again next year.

And Maryland's new tax on digital ads faces a legal challenge from businesses ahead of its scheduled start date in January.

Read the full story at NBC News here.