from the ill-communication dept
For several years the telecom sector has been quietly trying to spur additional regulation of Silicon Valley. Why? As giants like AT&T and Comcast increasingly push into the online advertising arena, they’re keen on having competitors saddled with regulation, while they successfully eliminate oversight of their own problematic monopolies. Given the FCC (now headed by a former Verizon lawyer) just effectively neutered itself at telecom lobbyist behest while the DOJ (now headed by a former Verizon lawyer) goes the extra mile to vilify Facebook, you’d have to consider the gambit fairly successful so far.
To be clear, there are plenty of problems with Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other Silicon Valley giants that require attention and intelligent solutions by objective experts. And while a huge chunk of the animosity toward Silicon Valley giants is entirely genuine and well deserved, a lot of the “big tech” hyperventilation among lawmakers like (longtime AT&T ally) Marsha Blackburn is largely theatrical in nature and being driven by the telecom sector. Ferreting out which is which isn’t easy, but looking at campaign contributions can certainly help.
The mainstream press, for its part, has been oddly unaware of how much of the animosity against “big tech” has been co-opted and amplified by telecom for what should be obviously selfish reasons. For example, telecom (hand in hand with Rupert Murdoch) has been making the rounds trying to suggest that Google’s support of encrypted DNS somehow runs afoul of antitrust guidelines (it doesn’t). And Reuters, for example, ran a story this week suggesting that Comcast had suddenly emerged as a “new antitrust foe” for Google, levying criticism at the company’s ad business for the “first time”:
“Comcast, one of America?s largest media and communications companies, is wading into the epic regulatory pile-on against big tech companies such as Google, according to people familiar with the matter…Comcast may be drawing a line in the sand and wants to avoid letting Google do to the video ad business what it has done to the online ad market. It is the first time one of the most powerful companies in the United States, with its own muscular lobbying apparatus in Washington, is taking sides in the antitrust battle looming over the world?s largest seller of online ads.
So for one thing, Comcast’s efforts to push for a regulatory and antitrust crackdown of Google isn’t “new.” The cable industry’s top lobbying organization, the NCTA (whose primary backer is Comcast) has been pushing for a crackdown on Silicon Valley for several years now. Former FCC boss Mike Powell, now the cable industry’s top lobbyist, had this to say at an industry show in March of last year. Take special time to note how every criticism levied at Silicon Valley giants applies equally to telecom providers:
“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.”
While there’s plenty of individuals, groups, and companies that can provide helpful insight on the problems in “big tech,” Comcast isn’t among them. In large part because it’s guilty of nearly all of the criticisms it levies at Google. After convincing the FCC to effectively neuter itself recently, Comcast has been enjoying a growing broadband monopoly across huge swaths of the country as the nation’s telcos give up on upgrading aging DSL networks. Comcast then uses that monopoly to jack up prices, erect arbitrary barriers for competitors, and stifle emerging technologies (like better cable boxes).
And while Comcast tries to get DC lawmakers to impose all manner of new restrictions on Google, with its other hand it has successfully convinced DC (and a lot of policy folks who should know better) to ignore the problems with telecom entirely. Comcast has largely been criticizing Google via its advertising subsidiary Freewheel, and via its policy and lobbying extension organizations, while leaning on politicians like Marsha Blackburn whose sudden, breathless concern about tech monopolies mysteriously omits some of tech’s worst offenders: telecom providers.
Yes, countless 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.” That said, if we’re looking for expert insight into the genuine problems posed by “big tech,” maybe skip taking advice from natural telecom monopolies whose only real motivation here is to elbow in on Silicon Valley advertising revenues while saddling competitors with layers of new regulation.