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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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Filed Under: antitrust, congress, reform, regulatory capture

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