Ben Thompson: Here's where the House Antitrust Committee went wrong

"So much modern antitrust action against tech companies is like pushing on a string."

From "Anti-monopoly vs. Antitrust" mailed Thursday to Stratechery subscribers and free for everybody else.

Monopolies [in the committee report] were asserted with effectively zero evidence, and there was little to no mention of the positive impacts of these companies, even as basic business practices were described in the most sinister terms possible (Facebook and Instagram were accused of colluding?). Moreover, a lot of commentary felt stuck in 2012: Facebook forever competing against MySpace (but Instagram being a bargain was totally predictable!), Amazon against no one (Shopify was mentioned once), Google versus ten blue links, and Apple, well, they are in good shape: despite having arguably the most egregious practices under traditional antitrust law, the iPhone maker was the only company in the Executive Summary to be praised for its impact on society. In the committee’s telling, these companies are bad actors that do bad things, case closed.

Here Thompson quotes himself quoting William Letwin, in Law and Economic Policy in America: The Evolution of the Sherman Antitrust Act:

Hatred of monopoly is one of the oldest American political habits and like most profound traditions, it consisted of an essentially permanent idea expressed differently at different times. “Monopoly”, as the word was used in America, meant at first a special legal privilege granted by the state; later it came more often to mean exclusive control that a few persons achieved by their own efforts; but it always meant some sort of unjustified power, especially one that raised obstacles to equality of opportunity.

In other words, this subcommittee report is simply a new expression of an old idea; the details matter less than the fact it exists...

So much modern antitrust action against tech companies is like pushing on a string: the reason these companies have power is because so many customers choose to use them, and it is both difficult and probably unwise to try and regulate the individual choices of billions of users. At the same time, as I noted, I am sympathetic to the issue of just how much power these companies have: constraining that power, though, needs new laws that start with Internet assumptions, and anti-monopoly advocates would do well to focus on solutions that, instead of retracting privileges, extend them (a la incorporations in the 1800s).

My take: As friend-of-the-blog David Emery suggests, worth a read. But probably better read in full than in this choppy excerpt.

BTW: In a recent episode of their podcast Dithering, Thompson and John Gruber can be heard giddily humble-bragging about their separate appearances in the committee's final report.

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  1. David Emery said:
    I, for one, would challenge Mr Thompson to propose some definitions and rules for what he thinks should be the appropriate level of oversight. He understands this stuff as well as anyone, so if he has problems getting effective (and appropriately limited scope) definitions, that doesn’t bode well for what Congresscritters would come up with…

    October 7, 2020
  2. Fred Stein said:
    Hooray – Ben’s key point, the committee uses monopoly sloppily. Further – sloppy thinking by the committee and Cicilline. (And I’m a democrat.)

    Big flaws:

    1) No one NEEDS paid Apps. We can invest or buy anything without paying Apple or App developers a dime. We can get nearly anything else including subscriptions through the web browser of our choice on any mobile, tablet or PC device.

    2) There’s real OPEX and CAPEX which require ROI. I’d bet there are no regulated monopolies that operate with less than 30% to cover all their OPEX and profit.

    3) No harm to consumers.

    4) Millions of developers getting rich.

    October 7, 2020
  3. Gregg Thurman said:
    I was going to make a comment but changed my mind. I mean just how times can you say this is nothing more than uninformed politicians getting free publicity that they exist.

    The quality of this report is clear evidence that those involved haven’t a clue about anti-trust law, or the businesses of the players involved.

    October 7, 2020

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