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A very antitrust situation

 |  September 10, 2018

Posted by The Financial Times

A very antitrust situation

By Rana Foroohar 

Last week, my colleague Ed asked readers to “think bigly” about a grand strategy around foreign policy.

This week, I’ll borrow another unique piece of locution from Our Leader and ask Swampians to consider how the president is politicising a “very antitrust situation” involving platform technology firms like Google, Amazon and Facebook. Trump has complained that Google’s search results are shutting out conservative voices. Likewise, attorney-general Jeff Sessions has said he plans to meet state AGs to discuss how platform firms are “hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas”. All this, came just before the Senate intelligence committee heard from Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey last week about the role platform firms may have played in 2016 election manipulation.

But far from helping Washington look at the very real issues of monopoly power in technology, the president’s involvement is — what a surprise — pulling everyone’s attention in just the wrong direction. Silicon Valley leans left politically (although I’d argue its true ideology is libertarianism) but there are no evil geniuses sitting in towers in the Googleplex trying to stifle conservative voices. Every platform tech firm has its algorithmic biases, and those need to be much better understood, as the FT wrote last week. But by making the issue of monopolies political, just as he did in the AT&T/Time Warner case, the president may make some Democrats less likely to want to pursue the real economic issues posed by technology giants. I look at some of the impact of those in my latest column on how the Fed should rethink monetary policy.

But anti-competitive practices will be front and centre later this week, as the Federal Trade Commission holds the first broad based hearings in some 23 years on competition and consumer protection, focused around new technologies. I’m particularly interested in the session that will take place on Friday morning on the consumer welfare standard in antitrust law. Two very smart sources will be speaking: Barry Lynn — the head of Open Markets Institute and the guy that former Google chair Eric Schmidt pushed out of the New America Foundation after he questioned the company’s monopoly power — and Tim Wu, a Columbia professor who wrote The Attention Merchants, which is a great look at how platform firms monetise your attention. Both have argued that rather than focusing on lower consumer prices as the be-all-end-all metric of welfare, that regulators should look back to the thinking of former Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, who believed that bigness was, in and of itself, a problem for democracy, since big companies can distort the political economy. Indeed, Wu’s upcoming book, The Curse of Bigness, hones in on the topic with persuasive detail.

I would agree with them, and that’s the issue we should focus on, rather than the president’s latest bluster around Big Tech (which is, by the way, belied by his Nafta negotiations, which allow big loopholes to benefit the largest tech firms). As F Scott Fitzgerald put it, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I know Swampians understand that it’s OK to question the power of technology giants, even if the president does it too.