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WASHINGTON -- Antitrust lawsuits against big tech companies like Apple, Google and Meta might not be popular, but they are necessary to ensure competition and protect consumers. That's according to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who spoke on the merits of antitrust law during a conference Wednesday.
Blumenthal drew on his past experience fighting the Microsoft antitrust case as he spoke during the American Antitrust Institute's (AAI) 23rd annual policy conference, called "Bringing and Litigating Antitrust Cases in an Era of Change." Blumenthal, who served as Connecticut's attorney general from 1991-2011, helped lead a coalition of 20 state attorneys general who filed an antitrust case along with the U.S. Department of Justice against Microsoft in 1998.
Today, the DOJ is pursuing an antitrust lawsuit against Google for alleged illegal dominance of search engines, while the Federal Trade Commission is going after Facebook owner Meta for maintaining a monopoly over social media platforms. But these federal agencies face an uphill battle, Blumenthal said.
Since most of the digital products offered by big tech companies come at no monetary cost to users, the harm might not be readily apparent, making the antitrust lawsuits especially difficult to litigate. Blumenthal argued that's why antitrust reform is necessary.
Richard Blumenthal U.S. Senator, D-Conn.
"Reform of our antitrust laws can be real and meaningful in the lives of everyday Americans, and will help us educate people on how antitrust law is important to them," he said.
Challenge facing big tech antitrust lawsuits
Microsoft eventually settled the antitrust case brought against it by the states and Justice Department, and was prohibited from tying its own Internet browser -- Internet Explorer -- to its Windows operating system. That allowed competing Internet browsers to run on Microsoft's operating system, opening the door to innovation from other companies, Blumenthal said.
The Microsoft antitrust lawsuit was not popular at the time, Blumenthal said during his speech at the conference. The AAI is a nonprofit organization that promotes the benefits of antitrust enforcement to bolster competition.
"After all, people were happy using these devices, they had no idea what Microsoft was doing, they had no idea what antitrust law was," he said. "In this world of technology, the evils are often difficult to illustrate or even describe in ways that are persuasive to consumers."
That's why lawsuits brought against companies like Google and Meta are important, Blumenthal said.
It also points to why antitrust reform is needed to address big tech companies and modern digital platforms, he added.
Federal bills aim to increase competition
Bills such as the bipartisan American Innovation and Choice Online Act, introduced by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), would stop big tech companies from selecting and promoting their own services above others on platforms they operate.
But it's not the only antitrust reform bill directed at reining in big tech business practices.
The Open App Markets Act, another bipartisan bill introduced by Blumenthal and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), would require companies like Apple and Google to allow consumers to download apps outside of the companies' own app store. It would also allow app developers to use their own payment systems and avoid high commission fees charged by Apple and Google on in-app purchases.
"These [bills] epitomize what antitrust law should do, which is to level the playing field, give equal access, let consumers choose without encumbrances and eventually lower costs and create better products, innovation," he said. "That's what new apps would do if they had that kind of access."
Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.