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US escalates its anti-Big Tech crusade

The US House of Representatives has given the thumbs-up to a report that recommends a raft of legal measures designed to curb the power of Big Tech.

The ‘Final Report on Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets’ runs to no less than 450 pages. Essentially it asks whether the US tech giants have become too big and thus exert too much influence over the markets they inhabit. The conclusion that they have is hard to argue with, but what to do about it is another matter entirely.

“Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook each hold monopoly power over significant sectors of our economy. This monopoly moment must end,” said House Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline.

“I’m grateful to my colleagues on both sides of the aisle who worked with me over the past two years to compile this report, which makes clear that Congress and the antitrust enforcement agencies must step up to restore a competitive marketplace, enhance innovation, and protect our democracy. Now that the Judiciary Committee has formally adopted our findings, I look forward to crafting legislation that addresses the significant concerns we have raised.”

Here are the report’s recommendations:

Restoring Competition in the Digital Economy

  • Reduce Conflicts of Interest Thorough Structural Separations and Line of Business Restrictions
  • Implement Rules to Prevent Discrimination, Favoritism, and Self-Preferencing
  • Promote Innovation Through Interoperability and Open Access
  • Reduce Market Power Through Merger Presumptions
  • Create an Even Playing Field for the Free and Diverse Press
  • Prohibit Abuse of Superior Bargaining Power and Require Due Process

Strengthening the Antitrust Laws

  • Restore the Antimonopoly Goals of the Antitrust Laws
  • Invigorate Merger Enforcement
  • Rehabilitate Monopolization Law

Strengthening Antitrust Enforcement

  • Congressional Oversight
  • Agency Enforcement
  • Private Enforcement

The first part is a belated attempt to reduce the amount of influence the alleged monopolists can exert over both their core markets and adjacent ones, including things like abuse of personal data. The second is a moan about the courts failing to enforce the letter of century-old antitrust laws and the third is a whinge about the ineffectiveness of regulators.

“Today’s digital markets are highly concentrated,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler. “The largest companies have morphed from being innovative startups into powerful gatekeepers, not unlike the railroad and telephone monopolists of the past. The Report also makes clear that the Antitrust enforcement agencies have been missing in action. Furthermore, the courts have incorrectly interpreted and applied the antitrust statutes in ways that run counter to Congress.”

The quotes indicate this report is part of a power struggle between the US legislature and judiciary. Considering Democrat Nadler is also in favour of adding more Supreme Court Justices until his team has the majority we can safely take anything he says with a massive pinch of salt. The misbehaviour of Big Tech is apparently being used as a stick to beat the judiciary with, which is crude and counterproductive.

Perhaps by accident, however, the report is largely on the money. Big Tech does have too much power and it does abuse it to the detriment of consumers and the free market, so something has to be done. Thankfully there seemed to be little talk of retroactively blocking acquisitions or placing arbitrary caps on future ones. The law almost certainly does need updating, so it’s good to see this process underway.

There are many problems that can’t be resolved by mere legislation, however, and that seems to be frustrating these politicians. Regulators are nearly always several steps behind the companies they’re supposed to be regulating, as the 2008 financial crisis illustrated. But many of the acquisitions that have turned out so well for Big Tech were Big Risks at the time that have paid off. Good antitrust law strikes the perfect balance between encouraging growth while protecting markets but this initiative may end up merely punishing success for the sake of it.


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