Big Tech 'Antitrust Reform' Agenda Sags, Revealing Mostly Empty Rhetoric

from the big-plans-go-nowhere dept

Much of last year was dominated by talk about how there was a “new, bipartisan coalition” of folks interested in “reining in big tech” via “antitrust reform.” The GOP in particular, which has, for forty years, largely embraced and encouraged monopolization and consolidation at every turn (see telecom as a shining example) was repeatedly portrayed as “very serious about antitrust reform this time.” At least as it applied to “big tech.” There are countless U.S. business sectors where monopolies and anticompetitive behaviors are rampant that Congress simply couldn’t give any less of a shit about, whether it’s banking, health care, telecom, airline travel, or energy.

For years, experts pointed out that U.S. antitrust reform had grown toothless and frail, our competition laws needed updating in the Amazon era, and “are consumers happy?” (the traditional consumer welfare standard) doesn’t actually measure all aspects of potential harm in complex markets. You can look to U.S. sectors like telecom to see the work that needed doing. Good news! We were, the Congress, the press, and the punditry insisted, entering a bold new era of “antitrust reform” with “bipartisan support.” At least in terms of “big tech.” Why only big tech? Who knows! Stop asking questions.

Guess what? None of the rhetoric over the last two years amounted to absolutely anything. Yeah, we did see some limited, narrow, chopped up proposals for scattered reform of select tech companies, but as we noted at the time many of those had serious problems or (again) weirdly ignored other business sectors like telecom or banking. Despite all the talk about how Congress was “serious this time” about antitrust reform, it turns out that they weren’t, actually, and time is running out to get anything done ahead of the midterms:

“I think the timeline, to be sure we get them done as soon as possible, but certainly before the summer break, is critical,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), chair of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, told Axios. “We’re at an important inflection point.” “There is a lot of urgency to get something done in this Congress. By the summer, people’s focus will turn to the midterms,” he said.”

American consumers and economists alike recognize that monopolization and mindless consolidation are harmful and want antitrust reform applied across industries. But here’s the obvious problem: Congress isn’t interested in antitrust reform, because the nation’s biggest campaign contributors (“big tech” or otherwise) don’t want antitrust reform. They want feckless, hamstrung oversight incapable of telling them what to do, whether it’s “please don’t pollute that town’s drinking water,” “please stop ripping off your broadband subscribers,” “please stop acquiring and killing potential competitors,” or “”hey, maybe you could do the basics to keep your energy customers from freezing to death.”

It’s called corruption and regulatory capture. Yes, a scattered number of folks in Congress care about this stuff, but the vast majority do not. A majority care about making money, exclusively. Human, market, planetary, or consumer impact is a burdensome afterthought. Most of the “big tech” critics in Congress were just riding on the public anger over the bad behavior of companies like Facebook, looking to score cheap political brownie points. They were never actually serious. History and voting records should have made it fairly evident.

The GOP’s support for antitrust reform was particularly hollow. Reality: the party got mad because some Silicon Valley execs began belatedly and sloppily policing race-baiting propaganda on the internet, a cornerstone of party power in the face of shifting demographics (see: the assault on Section 230). They also wanted to shovel some ad revenue money over to their friends at AT&T and News Corporation. The Fiction: the GOP is “being censored” and is very, very serious about pushing for “antitrust reform” and reining in out of control corporations who are stifling free speech and innovation simply because they’re mean.

It was all bullshit, sensible people should have seen it was bullshit, and yet for two straight years we were subject to endless stories from major outlets and pundits pushing the fiction. Namely, “the GOP is serious about antitrust reform this time” and there is now a “very serious bipartisan push for antitrust reform.” But they were never serious about antitrust reform. And calling it bipartisan was always generous. The majority of Congress adores monopolization and mindless consolidation because their campaign contributors adore monopolization and mindless consolidation. Despite endless rhetoric about “big tech,” every time a real vote for antitrust reform appears the GOP (and a good chunk of the DNC) will run for the hills. Over and over again. You can set your watch to it.

It’s a chicken and the egg scenario. You can’t reform U.S. antitrust (or regulatory oversight, or a broken court system that panders to the biggest companies) until you tackle corruption. But the very nature of corruption and regulatory capture ensures you can’t implement antitrust reform. There will be no real antitrust reform (or any reform relating to unchecked corporate power, really) until the United States finds creative ways to break the cycle and truly tackle (or at least mitigate) corruption. This reality is fairly obvious, yet huge segments of the U.S. population (including much of the press) weirdly either downplay or ignore it. But the circular firing squad is evident everywhere, from consumer and voting rights reform to climate change.

That’s not to say there can’t be reform with an eye on competition and health markets, just that it’s not coming from this corrupt dumpster fire of a Congress. The FTC can certainly still act, albeit within the confines of intentionally constrained authority and intentionally limited staffing and budgets. Some of the antitrust lawsuits against Google are also particularly meaty, given there’s what should be some fairly bulletproof antitrust violations (like paying wireless companies and hardware vendors not to compete in the app store space for the last decade). But both routes have limitations and are rife with wrist slaps and pathetic fines that may not fix the underlying rot.

But it’s embarrassing how many grown adults took Congress’ pledge of being interested in “antitrust reform” seriously. It was unserious grandstanding by unserious and corrupt people peppered with the rare, and occasional sincerity. Which is why after two straight years of endless banging on the drum of “big tech antitrust reform” we’ve got bupkis and dandruff to show for it. The United States Congress is a corrupt mess, bribed into perpetual apathy on this subject. For whatever reason much of the press and punditry simply adores pretending otherwise.

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Comments on “Big Tech 'Antitrust Reform' Agenda Sags, Revealing Mostly Empty Rhetoric”

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: until the United States finds creative ways to break the cyc

"…by scrapping capitalism and moving to a more equitable and democratic form of government, i.e. communism!"

Except that people being people Communism won’t work. The USSR actually tried but no regime today calling itself communist managed to get around the fact that people are neither perfect nor machines and thus there is communism remains an "if pigs could fly" theorem only spoiled by the absence of winged porcines.

China underlines this point by, in effect, having a market more red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalist by far than the US at this point.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Thad (profile) says:

Re: Another viewpoint...

Voter apathy is a convenient scapegoat because it ignores systemic anti-democratic problems with the US system of government in general and access to voting in particular. The Senate and presidency are undemocratic institutions by design; the House is nominally representative but, due to a number of decisions from gerrymandering to the 435-representative cap, is not particularly democratic in practice.

And that’s before we get into the deliberate voter disenfranchisement efforts we’ve been seeing, from voter ID laws to limited access to polling stations to the recent wave of anti-"ballot harvesting" legislation designed to make it more difficult for (historically Black) institutions to help people get their ballots to the ballot box.

Yes, by all means, vote in every election and hold our representatives’ feet to the fire. But part of holding their feet to the fire needs to include pressuring them to reform the filibuster and pass voting rights legislation.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re: Another viewpoint...

But thats the problem.
In a democratic Society, the People ARE the government.
And if we dont pay attention THINGS DONT get done correctly.

And the take over of the system started With those 2 groups. There is no democratic Gov. that has only 2 Major groups. So allot of the smaller Strange groups(those not getting much money) decided to Join the larger ones.
As things changed in the 70’s things slowly got stranger. Insted of a stipend pay system, the JOB had a salary. And now they get even more, under the table.

WE the people, Forgot WE are an EMPLOYER. and if they change that we will have no rights.
How many have sent letters to our representatives? Tell them to do the job required or be fired. Then if needed goto face book and ask people to JUDGE them on merit, supply a few facts and see what happens, EVEN create a group to display info on what they did and didnt do.

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Another viewpoint...

"In a democratic Society, the People ARE the government"

Ideally, yes. In reality, that’s not always the case (witness the current situation in the US where your ability to represent your own desired interests appears to vary wildly depending on where you live).

"How many have sent letters to our representatives? Tell them to do the job required or be fired"

OK, but you send letters to the representative that you personally have, but their power is overridden by a cabal of other representatives who don’t agree with you and you have no sway over. It doesn’t matter how many letters you send to your local representative in CA, for example, if Mitch McConnell is just going to override anything they try to do. You don’t get anywhere by firing people who don’t have the direct power to do what you want them to do, and any letters you send to Kentucky are not going to be taken seriously.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Another viewpoint...

It’s weird sometimes when I seem to know more about the way the US is set up and run than people who live there.

There’s no reason for any state government to honour a tiny petition (yes, 10k is tiny) from people who don’t live there for any reason whatsoever, let alone to directly control who represents the voters of that state. There may be some recall procedure in the state to end a representative’s tenure early, but that’s not going to be going anywhere except the trash if it’s no coming from the people of the state (and, to give my example above, Kentucky does not have such a recall procedure from what I see on a quick search). Apart from that, elections are regularly scheduled and you may be able to try and influence the actual voters to do what’s right for everyone.

So what, apart from your fevered imagination, gives you any control over what other people have chosen to represent their interests? If you’re just wishing for something, why would you believe that would give you what you want and not be abused by the people to block the representatives you have chosen?

It may be your right, and even feel that it’s your duty, to waste time on meaningless petitions, but the people you send it to don’t have to do a damn thing about it. I agree that it would be nice if the people who are actively blocking what an actual majority of the country have chosen, but it does not – and should not – work in the way you’ve hallucinated.

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Another viewpoint...

The problem with that take is that a lot of Americans do care. They’re just single issue voters and will allow the rest of the country to be burned down around them so long as that single issue is protected. This has been part of the playbook for a long time – pander to a single issue, then you get carte blanche to do a great many other things so long as you don’t violate your promise to protect that single issue.

"Start calling out individual senators and representatives too."

This already happens. The problem is that sometimes it takes the form of decrying the fact that some representatives are barely literate trolls who care more about headlines than the welfare of their own constituents because death threats got them elected unopposed (MTG) while others are attacked as the second coming of Stalin because they suggest adopting measures that have been proven successful in the rest of the developed world (Sanders, AOC, among others).

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

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James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Amazed you’ve missed how Mike has been a long critic of the Big Tech anti-trust push because by any standard, other industries are currently much more harmful to consumers, present a clear monopoly/duopoly, and/or mechanisms exist to address the anti-trust issues already exist and have been seen to work in other countries.

I’m amazed You’ve missed that Mike’s opposition to the Big Tech Anti-trust push is in part due to the fact that proposals to address ‘big tech’ don’t serve to reduce the monopoly power of Big Tech, which is the point of anti-trust, but rather reinforce it.

There be nuance in this here discussion, and you are clearly not tall enough to participate, because it all went over your head.

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James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Right, which is why the focus on big tech is wild. By any metric, Telecom exercises more monopoly control than google. The ability of the consumer to change providers re: google is much higher than for comcast.

I never said that w have to "go after literally everyone else". "Big Tech" is an umbrella term that describes issues with companies in at least 4 separate markets (ads, search, social media feeds, online shopping), each market requiring solutions tailored to the issues and facing that particular market. Proposed solutions to address big tech treat all these markets as the similar enough, treat the entire market as though the biggest players are the only players, and/or completely fail to consider the long term implications of their proposals. Addressing anti-competitive behavior isn’t as simple as saying google can only serve the bay area, which is 95% of the existing toolset for antitrust. By contrast, broadband regulatory powers, such as local loop unbundling, already exists and the bureaucratic groundwork can start right now with a comment period.

And thats the core. You’ve moved the goalposts.

I’m amazed you were allowed to publish this article given that Masnick himself subscribes to the outdated consumer welfare standard and prolly likes the status-quo as it is.

I pointed out that nothing in this article actually opposes Mike’s philosophy. That Mike is unhappy with the status quo. Nothing you have said since contrasts that point. Please though, please clarify why Mike would have barred this from publication. What about this article is so antithetical to mike that he would have refused to publish? Be detailed. Use quotes.

danderbandit (profile) says:

A big part of the problem

By the summer, people’s focus will turn to the midterms

When our reps biggest concern is getting re-elected or moving up the ladder is changed to doing the job they were elected to do then we might be able to get this changed. Kind of hard when a big chunk of the population and media focus is on the next election mere days after the previous one.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

Not anti-trust, just spite and PR soundbites

Even to the extent that there might have been honest interest in going after the companies the very narrow selection of targets made abundantly clear that this wasn’t about anti-trust it was about sticking it to the current political punching bags and scoring points, and if that happened to involve some genuine anti-trust efforts then that would just be a happy coincidence.

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