House Antitrust Report Hits Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google
If wishes were antitrust law… Surprising absolutely no one, U.S. lawmakers—who have been tossing whatever claims of bad deeds they can at Big Tech for a good while—are now angling for antitrust law changes that they say are necessary to rein in Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. On Tuesday, the House of Representatives antitrust committee put out a 450-page report on the subject, suggesting that all four companies were too big for their britches and if the law didn’t currently ban their business practices, it should.
The report is the result of a 16-month-long investigation from the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law. As part of it, representatives barraged the CEOs of all four companies with inane and irrelevant questions in a public hearing. The investigation also included seven other hearings and the obtaining of “1,287,997 documents and communications; testimony from 38 witnesses; a hearing record that spans more than 1,800 pages; 38 submissions from 60 antitrust experts from across the political spectrum; and interviews with more than 240 market participants, former employees of the investigated platforms, and other individuals,” as well as discussions “with industry and government witnesses,” it states.
Whether we’re talking a smoking gun or a needle in a haystack, that should’ve been sufficient to find it. Instead, representatives seem to have given up on pretending that the investigation makes sense on traditional antitrust grounds.
There’s scant evidence of elements historically necessary for an antitrust violation. Rather, lawmakers are pushing a major overhaul of antitrust action, using these companies as a test case. The new House antitrust report calls for “for sweeping changes to federal laws so that government regulators can bring Silicon Valley back in check,” The Washington Post puts it. More:
The report recommends a significant overhaul of the federal government’s antitrust powers, including making it illegal for a company like Amazon or Google to give greater weight to their own products in their online marketplaces. Other suggested changes would empower consumers to bring lawsuits and give new legal tools to the Justice Department or FTC [Federal Trade Commission] to block future tech mergers.
The whole thing has followed the bipartisan playbook previously in use with Backpage and Craigslist, except applied to competitive practices instead of content moderation. That is: Pick the biggest examples of a tech company or phenomenon that the government wants to curb or stop, subpoena a bazillion internal documents under some trumped-up pretense of criminal activity, and go fishing for something that can be spun into a call for congressional action—action that won’t involve just (if at all) going after scapegoated companies for the originally alleged violation but changing the underpinnings of internet and business and speech law in a way more friendly to federal control.
(You can read the whole antitrust report here.)
Essentially, it faults Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook for making products that people want to use, improving those products based on market trends and consumer research, and engaging in very normal business practices (such as Amazon prioritizing the display of its own products, or Apple being a little choosy about what it allows in its app store), all of which it portrays as unconscionably nefarious. A lot of weight is given to what rival businesses have to say.
Ultimately, the subcommittee concludes that “Facebook has monopoly power in the market for social networking,” “Google has a monopoly in the markets for general online search and search advertising,” “Amazon has significant and durable market power in the U.S. online retail market,” and “Apple has significant and durable market power in the mobile operating system market.”
In response, it recommends an array of policy changes that would give the federal government unprecedented input in tech business practices and decisions, as well as new power to punish these companies and a relaxing of rules that allow them to push back. The report recommends, among other things:
• Structural separations and prohibitions of certain dominant platforms from operating in adjacent lines of business;
• Nondiscrimination requirements, prohibiting dominant platforms from engaging in self-preferencing, and requiring them to offer equal terms for equal products and services;
• Presumptive prohibition against future mergers and acquisitions by the dominant platforms;
• Taking additional measures to strengthen overall enforcement, including through overriding problematic precedents in the case law
• Restoring the federal antitrust agencies to full strength, by triggering civil penalties and other relief for “unfair methods of competition”rules, requiring the Federal Trade Commission to engage in regular data collection on concentration, enhancing public transparency and accountability of the agencies, requiring regular merger retrospectives, codifying stricter prohibitions on the revolving door, and increasing the budgets of t
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