So Wait, People Seriously Think Bill Barr Will Rein In Tech Monopoly Power?

from the ill-communication dept

So we've noted for a while how while a lot of the anger against "big tech" is certainly justified, there's a sizeable segment of this growing DC chorus that's being quietly orchestrated by telecom giants. Companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast just effectively convinced the FCC to self-immolate, dismantling huge swaths of its broadband consumer protection authority (what could go wrong?). At the same time, the DOJ and FCC have been rubber stamping every terrible telecom merger than comes down the pike. When it comes to telecom monopolies, you'll hear nary a peep from the Trump administration.

Contrast that to the GOP and Trump administration's sudden, breathless interest in "big tech" monopolies. In case you'd missed it, top telecom lobbyists have spent the last two years pushing ironically for a massive regulatory crackdown on "big tech" companies. For example Mike Powell, former FCC boss turned top cable industry lobbyist, put it this way at a 2018 appearance at an industry trade event:

"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," he said. "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," he added."

So you'll notice here that telecom is accusing big tech of all the things telecom routinely engages in, from buying competitors to stifle competition, to laying claim to massive troves of consumer data with little accountability or oversight. This bizarre asymmetrical policy positioning, where Silicon Valley monopolies are bad but telecom monopolies apparently don't exist, has since become a DC mainstay, as reflected by the positions of folks like Josh Hawley and Marsha Blackburn. Neither have so much as mentioned telecom in passing in their conversations about monopoly power, and the latter of the two has literally never seen an AT&T policy proposal she didn't support.

Enter Bill Barr, the former Verizon General Counsel who spent years helping Verizon crush competitors, violate privacy and wiretap law, and generally engage in all the kind of behaviors he's now supposedly policing. On that end, reports this week emerged stating that Barr has slowly been taking control of numerous antitrust inquiries at the DOJ from DOJ antitrust boss Makan Delrahim:

"Barr has centralized oversight of antitrust matters under a handful of appointees in his office and that of his deputy attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen. Those moves have sidelined the Antitrust Division’s current leadership, headed by Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, who for the past year has been the public face of DOJ’s investigations into Silicon Valley’s treatment of its users and customers."

Delrahim of course flubbed the AT&T Time Warner lawsuit, which I still believe had more to do with pleasing Rupert Murdoch and pissing off CNN than any serious concern about monopoly power. Such concerns are violently out of character for the Trump administration, which only seems to embrace such rhetoric when it serves a political purpose (see: the nonexistent censorship of Conservatives). Delrahim also just came under fire recently for rubber stamping the controversial Sprint T-Mobile merger in some very problematic ways, tying himself in knots to approve the competition-eroding deal.

On one hand, you could believe that Barr suddenly and uncharacteristically cares about monopolies and is engaged in a good faith effort to more seriously police them, as Matt Stoller suggests here:

"He has an understanding of what it’s like to be in competition with these monopolists. He understands what’s at stake,” said Matt Stoller, director of research at the American Economic Liberties Project, an anti-monopoly nonprofit.

“I have more faith in Barr than in Delrahim,” added Stoller, though he still predicted that Barr and the DOJ would bring a narrower antitrust suit against the tech platforms than he believes is warranted.

The problem with this claim is Barr has never, in history, shown the slightest interest in seriously reining in monopoly power, as his time at Verizon makes pretty clear. It's far more likely that Barr's interested in using the DOJ's antitrust enforcement authority as a political and personal blunt weapon. Notably to help this administration's BFFs in the telecom sector wage regulatory war on companies they (not at all coincidentally) are trying to erode video ad market share from. It's similar to the way that Ajit Pai has bizarrely demonized Netflix while just completely ignoring much worse problems in telecom.

As Mike noted in a recent interview with Mathew Ingram, it's also very likely Trump sees these inquiries as a great way to gain leverage in efforts like his misguided war on encryption:

"In reality, Barr has been (misleadingly) complaining about encryption to support his authoritarian impulses to want to have access to all information. This has never been the way the world works, and thanks to technology, law enforcement already has more access than ever to most information about people. The real goal here for Barr was just to use 230 as a wedge to try to break encryption."

There's really been zero evidence to suggest most of these "big tech" inquiries at the DOJ are being seriously conducted in good faith. In fact there's ample evidence the wheels of DOJ antitrust enforcement have been hijacked for what has often been bizarre and petty vendettas on behalf of Trump. But sure, a guy who spent years propping up US telecom monopolies and has never shown the slightest genuine interest in the problems monopolies cause is just the guy to finally fix the nation's longstanding monopoly problems, why not.

Filed Under: antitrust, big tech, competition, doj, fcc, makan delrahim, michael powell, telcos, william barr
Companies: amazon, apple, facebook, google, verizon


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Mar 2020 @ 6:40am

    Of course he'll rein it in. He'll rein in all the power for himself to use as he sees fit. Was there really ever any other option?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Mar 2020 @ 6:53am

    DC Chorus

    Powerful lobbyists and special interest groups strongly influence Federal Government decisions and policy ???

    This is unheard of in WashingtonDC prior to 2017.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    arp2 (profile), 5 Mar 2020 @ 6:53am

    He will reign in power when it suits his party

    Big Tech is slightly, barely progressive in the sense that they believe in climate change, sometimes remove hate speech and blindingly false information from their platforms, would like a federal privacy law (with plenty of holes), and want to keep encryption. As we've seen with the Russia/Ukraine/Mueller Report, Barr has zero issue with prosecuting the other side for the very things his side is doing- he is 100% a tribalist.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    Norahc (profile), 5 Mar 2020 @ 7:12am

    The only people who believe he will reign in big tech are the same ones who believe his cries of encryption is bad and the government can be trusted to respect your rights,

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    Bloof (profile), 5 Mar 2020 @ 8:06am

    Reign in? Nah, attack any company that 'silences conservative voices.'(Also known as reluctantly banning nazis after years of abusive behaviour toward other users only after the mainstream press start paying attention.) You bet!

    Barr has made no attempt to hide that the bulk of what he does is done for purely partisan reasons, this will be no different.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Mar 2020 @ 8:20am

    If he's trying at least that's good.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Mar 2020 @ 8:35am

    Re:

    Really? The telcos have business interest in providing services on top of the network structure that they own, However big tech is out competing them, especially in competition against the cable side of their business. This about Barr doing telcos a favour by knee capping the competition.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Mar 2020 @ 8:57am

    Re:

    Marked as funny.

    You forgot the /s

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Mar 2020 @ 9:11am

    Re:

    Ok, but what is he actually trying to do?
    I could guess, but for sure it is not what he says.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 5 Mar 2020 @ 9:59am

    Barr will do for the DoJ what Pai has done for the FCC.
    May the FSM have mercy on your souls.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Mar 2020 @ 10:10am

    Re:

    Unlikely he will be able to rein it in.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Mar 2020 @ 10:13am

    When the studios owned the theaters too, they had to divest. That was a long, long time ago...
    :)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Mar 2020 @ 12:10pm

    Re: DC Chorus

    Washington District of Corruption is well known for its corruption, and the history goes way back ... lots more than just a few years.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Mar 2020 @ 12:16pm

    Re: DC Chorus

    Side note:
    It is funny in a sad way that some people do not think Washington DC is part of the United States. That is bad enough by itself, but some of these folk are employed as border patrol and are telling citizens from dc that it is not part of the us and they can not enter.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Mar 2020 @ 12:41pm

    Re:

    Reluctantly?

    Sorry try again. It's more of "We can ban this now." Previously, copyright safe harbor protections only applied to unknowing individuals / groups. If they were to start screening for "hate speech" they would also start getting demands for screening "copyright infringement" almost immediately from Hollywood. The second they start saying "It's no different than the DMCA notice procedure." is the second they would have lawsuits on their hands in the Eastern District of Texas court demanding their safe harbor protections be revoked.

    The main difference is that now, it's political. There's enough momentum behind censorship efforts from the snowflakes on both sides, that not censoring will cause more of a political backlash than the cries from Hollywood ever could. Let that sink in for a moment. The copyright maximalists can't enforce their will in court for fear of being seen as complicit with hate groups. Legally, Hollywood still holds the ability to sue, and win, in court over this. No law has, as of this posting, changed. The only difference is now Hollywood would be committing political suicide to try and enforce their law.

    Worse, because censorship is OK in the land of free speech now, you have people taking advantage of it on all sides by trying to use it to ban viewpoints that they disagree with. As the loophole of "private corporations are exempt from free speech laws" is mainstream now and people across the land are testing just how far they can expand it. Funny how a law justifiably hated for it's ridiculous restrictions and demands on society turned out to be the only effective legal barrier keeping freedom of speech alive on the internet. Forget "routes around damage," it was "the Mouse's protection" keeping things up.

    Expect this trend to only get worse from here on out. We're in free fall until someone puts a stop to it, and that stop is not going to come from Washington D.C., Wall Street, Main Street, or Hollywood.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. icon
    Mike Masnick (profile), 5 Mar 2020 @ 2:05pm

    Re: Re:

    As the loophole of "private corporations are exempt from free speech laws" is mainstream now...

    Loophole? Uh, no. The 1st Amendment has always bound the government, not private corporations.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Mar 2020 @ 3:11pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    Loophole? Uh, no. The 1st Amendment has always bound the government, not private corporations.

    Yes, it is a loophole. A loophole through which the government can now exert it's influence. Why? Because so much of public discourse is facilitated by private corporations who are exempt from free speech protections. The government may not directly control them, (otherwise they would be subject to protections due to being publicly owned), but they can influence them indirectly in a number of ways. National Security is the government's go to excuse, but government contracts, taxes, withholding favorable legislation, or passing regulations designed to run companies out of business, are just a few others. Let alone illegal ones. Because the government can (indirectly) force a private company to censor speech, it is a loophole in the protections.

    The reason why I highlighted it as such is because previously, that loophole wasn't very exploitable by the government. Sure you could threaten a company into compliance to shut up their spokesperson, but that rarely is useful and when it is it's for a very limited purpose. Further, constant use of that tactic by the government, would only cause a company to consider "government threats" as a business expense and respond accordingly.

    All of that changed when companies, I.e. online services / platforms became responsible for providing the space for public discourse. Now, it's very lucrative to influence companies, because they can impact so many individuals at once without the public knowledge or consent. The target isn't a well financed corporation, it's a disorganized and unaware public. The companies have incentive to play along as well, as the risk to their profits are now greater if they oppose the government, rather than comply with the government's demands. I.e. The companies are no longer directly targeted, but they will be (unofficially) if they oppose.

    It's a loophole, no matter how you look at it. Even in the confines of the constitution and bill of rights, it's a clear exception that can negatively impact the public on behalf of the government. The only difference between when that loophole was written and now, is that now that loophole has gained utility. To state otherwise is to cling to the misguided notion of the government respecting it's bounds by it's own will. A notion that was responsible not only for the creation of the very laws which the government now seeks to circumvent on a massive scale, but the government itself.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Mar 2020 @ 3:37pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Should political parties be bound by the same free speech laws that you would impose on other corporations?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. icon
    Mike Masnick (profile), 6 Mar 2020 @ 12:23am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    That is many, many words for utter nonsense.

    Before the internet, most people had no voice at all, and had no venue in which to speak out. So they were all silenced. Thanks to the internet, they now have many places where they can put their voices -- some of which will moderate that content, some of which won't. That's got literally fuck all to do with government censorship.

    The idea that there is less ability to speak freely today than in the past is ahistorical and ignorant.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. icon
    Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 6 Mar 2020 @ 1:37am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    "That's got literally fuck all to do with government censorship."

    ...that largely depends on where you draw the line between chilling effect and outright censorship.

    I think most of us can agree that there has been plenty of attempts by government authority and legislators to loophole around free speech. The DMCA alone puts two torpedoes right under the constitutional waterline of online communication in that regard.

    There's plenty of fiscal and personal incentive to press for a de facto abolition of free speech online by numerous vested interests ranging from the usual suspect of the copyright cult all the way to corporations and politicians disinclined to accept the fact that their bloopers and shoddy offers are now subject to real consumer and citizen review.

    I believe the AC has one point. The DMCA introduced both intermediary liability AND safe harbor. In that regard the DMCA has indeed conditioned free speech online.
    What I emphatically do not concur with is the AC's claim that somehow copyright protection is part of the current reason free speech online still exists.

    The DMCA introduced BOTH the main problem AND the mitigatory measure. It solves nothing, in regards to free speech, only introducing a conditional threat to it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2020 @ 10:48pm

    Re: Re:

    No, he'll just throw a tantrum until he does. And given what he's asking for is the lovechild between a unicorn and the Loch Ness Monster that tantrum will be going on for a while...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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