If 'Big Tech' Is a Huge Antitrust Problem, Why Are We Ignoring Telecom?
from the ill-communication dept
Over the last week or so, Google, Amazon, and Apple have all taken a significant beating on Wall Street amidst rumblings of looming antitrust investigations by the DOJ and FTC. Google, we’re told, is subject of a looming antitrust probe by the DOJ. Amazon, we’ve learned, is facing growing scrutiny from the FTC. Apple stock also did a nose dive on the news that it too may soon be subject to a significant new antitrust probe.
On its surface, many of these actions aren’t all that surprising. After all, experts have noted for a decade than US antitrust enforcement has grown toothless and frail, and our definitions of monopoly power need updating in the Amazon era. Facebook’s repeated face plants on privacy (and basic transparency and integrity) have only added fuel to the fire amidst calls to regulate “big tech.”
Oddly missing from coverage from these probes is the fact that much of this behavior by the Trump administration may (*gasp*) not be driven by a genuine interest in protecting markets and consumer welfare. For one, it’s hard to believe that an administration that has shown it’s little more than a rubber stamp for sectors like telecom is seriously worried about monopoly power. Two, it’s hard to believe an administration obsessed with nonexistent censorship is going to come at these inquiries with integrity, and not, say, as a vessel to pursue a pointed partisan persecution complex.
I’ve been arguing for a while that while many of the calls to regulate big tech are driven by genuine worries about monopoly power, a lot of it is being driven by the telecom sector. For years now, telecom lobbyists and policy folks have been using the anger over Facebook to covertly call for heavier regulation of Silicon Valley. You see, these telecom lobbyists, who just got done convincing the Trump administration to neuter FCC oversight of their own natural monopolies, are looking for any advantage they can get as they try to compete with companies like Google in the online ad space.
This is how former FCC boss turned cable lobbyist Michael Powell put it at a recent conference:
“Our governmental authorities need to get a handle on what kind of market power and harm flow from companies that have an unassailable hold on large pools of big data, which serve as barriers to entry, allowing them to dominate industries throughout the economy. For years, big tech companies have been extinguishing competitive threats by buying or crushing promising new technologies just as they were emerging. They dominate their core business, and rarely have to foreclose competition by buying their peers. Competition policy must scrutinize more rigorously deals that allow dominant platforms to kill competitive technologies in the cradle.”
If you’ve watched as telecom giants have crushed every and any competitive threat by buying state and federal government, this entire paragraph should be fairly amusing to you. Powell’s clients couldn’t care less about anti-competitive behavior. What they do want is, again, for government to erect regulatory barriers that hamper the Silicon Valley companies whose ad revenues giants like AT&T and Comcast have drooled over for the better part of the last fifteen years. In the Trump administration they’ve finally found a vessel for this agenda.
The problem, of course, is there’s enough legitimate bipartisan worry about the power of big tech that this little telecom sector lobbying gambit has been able to fly under the radar as the real driver of this new Trump administration push. Even with former Verizon lawyers now at the head of the DOJ (Bill Barr) and the Trump FCC (Ajit Pai). But there’s a reason the Trump administration ignores telecom’s monopoly and privacy issues while amplifying Silicon Valley’s, and I’d argue it has a lot more to do with protectionism than a genuine worry about healthy markets.
If you were remotely serious about addressing the US’ monopoly and antitrust problems, there’s no way you’d simply ignore telecom. Giants like AT&T and Comcast already enjoy natural monopolies over the on ramp to the internet. They’ve then increasingly hoovered up countless media companies as they also position themselves to dominate the media flowing over those connections. This conflict and the potential for anticompetitive behavior sits at the heart of the net neutrality debate. Now, giants like AT&T want to become the next Google, with data harvesting plans every bit as problematic if not more so.
Yet again, notice how telecom gets a free pass by the Trump administration? Notice how Silicon Valley is demonized, but telecom’s surveillance and anti-competitive gambits see zero backlash? I don’t think it’s happenstance that this new Trump “big tech” antitrust push comes as big telecom has asked for just such a push to aid its own competitive agenda. A lot of folks on both sides of the political aisle who’d like to see more done to rein in “big tech” seem a touch oblivious to the possibility that this new antitrust push may not be entirely in good faith.
There’s a good chance these antitrust inquiries into Google, Facebook, and Apple are little more than partisan fever dreams co-driven by telecom lobbyists, yet a lot of outlets and experts are acting as if market health and consumer welfare are genuine motivators. It’s entirely unclear what the Trump administration did to suddenly earn this blanket trust, but as the net neutrality fracas and trade wars have made pretty clear, it sure as hell isn’t its several year track record on coherent tech policy.